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Translated from the Polish by 

"Here there is a world apart, unlike every- 
thing else, with laws of its own, its own 
manners and customs, and here is the house 
of the living dead life as nowhere else and 
a people apart. It is this corner apart that 

I am going to describe" 
DOSTOEVSKY The House of the Dead 


Copy ri g!it 1951, by 
Roy FHiblisHers, A..TSJ., New York 



All persons and events described in this book are 
real. For the sake of prudence, however, the names 
of certain prisoners have been changed. 

I wish to express my thanks to all those whose help 
has enabled me to write this book, particularly to 
Mrs. Lidia Ciolkosz and Dr. Witold Czerwinski. My 
gratitude is also due to Brigadier Fitzroy Maclean, 
M.P., for permission to quote from a letter in the 
Appendix, and to Diana Maddox for invaluable 
advice on the translation. 

G. H. 

















9 HUNGER 131 








15 IN THE URALS, 1942 227 




ONE OF THE PRISONERS facing page 24 

DERED BY Miss Z. facing page 220 

IGANOV'S POSTCARD facing page 228 


RELEASE FROM THE CAMP facing page 234 



OF the many books that I have read relating the experiences of 
victims in Soviet prisons and labour camps, Mr. Gustav Herling's 
A World Apart is the most impressive and the best written. He 
possesses in a very rare degree the power of simple and vivid 
description, and it is quite impossible to question his sincerity at 
any point. 

In the years 1940-42 he was first in prison and then in a forced 
labour camp near Archangel. The bulk of the book relates what 
he saw and suffered in the camp. The book ends with letters from 
eminent Communists saying that no such camps exist. Those who 
write these letters and those fellow-travellers who allow themselves 
to believe them share responsibility for the almost unbelievable 
horrors which are being inflicted upon millions of wretched men 
and women, slowly done to death by hard labour and starvation in 
the Arctic cold. Fellow-travellers who refuse to believe the 
evidence of books such as Mr. Herling's are necessarily people 
devoid of humanity, for if they had any humanity they would not 
merely dismiss the evidence, but would take some trouble to look 
into it. 

Communists and Nazis alike have tragically demonstrated that 
in a large proportion of mankind the impulse to inflict torture 
exists, and requires only opportunity to display itself in all its 
naked horror. But I do not think that these evils can be cured by 
blind hatred of their perpetrators. This will only lead us to become 
like them. Although the effort is not easy, one should attempt, in 
reading such a book as this one, to understand the circumstances 
that turn men into fiends, and to realise that it is not by blind rage 
that such evils will be prevented. I do not say that to understand 
is to pardon; there are things which for my part I find I cannot 
pardon. But I do say that to understand is absolutely necessary 
if the spread of similar evils over the whole world is to be prevented. 

I hope that Mr. Herling's book will be very widely read, and that 



it will rouse in its readers not useless vindictiveness, but a vast 
compassion for the petty criminals, almost as much as for their 
victims, and a determination to understand and eliminate the 
springs of cruelty in human nature that has become distorted by 
bad social systems. And apart from these general reflections, the 
reader will find the book absorbingly interesting and of the most 
profound psychological interest. 



THE summer of 1940 was nearly over when I was in Vitebsk. In 
the afternoons the sun still shone for a while on the paving-stones 
of the prison courtyard, and later set behind the red wall of the 
neighbouring block. Inside the cell familiar sounds reached us 
from the courtyard: the heavy tread of prisoners making their way 
to the bath-house, mingled with Russian words of command and 
the jingling of keys. The warder in the corridor sang quietly to 
himself; every now and then he put down his newspaper and, 
without undue hurry, came up to the little round window in the cell 
door. As if at a given signal two hundred pairs of eyes abandoned 
their indifferent scrutiny of the ceiling and transferred their gaze 
to the small pane of the judas. An enormous eye peered into the 
cell, looked round at all of us, and disappeared again; the small tin 
shield which covered the glass on the other side fell back into 
place Three kicks on the door meant: "Get ready for supper". 

Half-naked, we would get up from the cement floor the supper 
signal had put an end to our afternoon nap. While waiting with 
clay bowls in our hands for the liquid mess which was to be our 
supper, we took the opportunity to relieve ourselves of the liquid 
mess which had been our lunch. Six or eight streams of urine 
crossed in the air like the jets of a fountain, and met in a miniature 
whirlpool at the bottom of a high pail before us, raising the level of 
foam along its sides. Before buttoning up our trousers, some of us 
would look curiously at our shaved flesh: it was like seeing a tree, 
bent by the wind, standing solitary on the barren slopes of a field. 

If I were asked what else we did in Soviet prisons, I should find it 
difficult to add anything to the above account. We were woken in 
the morning by a knock on the door, and soon our breakfast a 
pail of cabbage-waterwas brought into the cell, together with a 
basket containing our daily ration of bread. We munched the bread 
until lunch and our conversational capacity reached its peak. 
The Catholics would then gather round an ascetic priest, the Jews 
round an army rabbi with fish-like eyes and folds of skin, which had 
once been his belly, hanging loosely from his body; simple people 


told each other their dreams and talked nostalgically about the past, 
while the intellectuals searched the cell for cigarette-ends which 
could be made into one common cigarette. Two kicks on the door 
put an end to the chatter, and the groups of prisoners, headed by 
their spiritual leaders, trooped out into the corridor and crowded 
round the pail of soup. But one day a dark Jew from Grodno 
joined us in the cell, and weeping bitterly announced that Paris had 
fallen. From that moment the patriotic whisperings and the 
political discussions on the palliasses came to an end. 

Toward evening the air became cooler, woolly clouds sailed 
across the sky, and the first stars gleamed faintly. The rust- 
coloured wall opposite our window would burst briefly into a 
reddish flame, which was then suddenly extinguished by the 
sunset. Night came, and with it cool air for the lungs, rest for the 
eyes, and moisture for parched lips. 

Just before evening roll-call the electric light came on in the cell, 
and its sudden brilliance accentuated the darkness of the sky 
outside. But only a moment later the night was pierced by the criss- 
crossing beams of searchlights, patrolling the darkness from the 
corner towers of the prison. Before the fall of Paris, a tail woman, 
her head and shoulders wrapped in a shawl, would pass at just 
about this hour through the small section of the street visible from 
our cell window. She would stop by the lamp-post opposite the 
prison wall to light a cigarette, and several times it happened that 
she lifted the burning match into the air like a torch and held it for a 
moment in that incomprehensible pose. We decided that this was a 
sign of Hope. After Paris fell, we did not see her for two months. 
It was not until an evening late in August that the sound of her 
hurried footsteps, echoing in the silence of the small street, woke us 
from our dreams; as before, she stood under the street-light and 
after she had lit her cigarette, she put out the match with a zig- 
zagging movement of the hand, like the motion of connecting-rods 
on railway-engine wheels. We all agreed that this could only mean a 
transfer, perhaps that very night. But they were in no hurry and 
we all remained in Vitebsk for another two months. 

The investigations and hearings of my case had been completed 
some months ago, in the prison at Grodno. I did not behave 
heroically during those hearings, and I still admire those of my 


prison friends who had the courage to engage their interrogators 
in subtle verbal duels and dialectic colloquies. My answers were 
short and direct, and it was not until I was outside in the corridor, 
being led back to my cell, that glorious-sounding phrases from the 
catechism of Polish political martyrdom suggested themselves to 
my fevered imagination. 

All that 1 desired during those hearings was sleep. Physically I 
cannot endure two things, an empty stomach and a full bladder. 
Both were torturing me when, woken in the middle of the night, I 
took my place on a hard stool before the officer in charge of my 
examination, with an incredibly strong light shining straight in my 

The first accusation in my indictment was based on two points of 
evidence. First, the high leather boots which I wore supposedly 
proved that I was a Major of the Polish Army. (These boots had 
been given to me by my younger sister when I decided to try and 
make my way abroad after Poland had been defeated and partitioned 
between Germany and Russia in September 1939. I was then 
twenty, and the war had interrupted my university studies.) 
Secondly, my name, when transcribed into Russian, became 
GerHng* and this supposedly made me the relative of a well-known 
Field-Marshal of the German Air Force. The accusation therefore 
read: "Polish officer in the pay of the enemy". But fortunately it 
did not take me long to convince the interrogator that these 
accusations were quite without foundation, and we were able to 
dispense with them entirely. There remained the one undisputed 
fact when arrested, I had been trying to cross the frontier between 
the Soviet Union and Lithuania. Then: "May I ask why you were 
trying to do that?" 

"I wanted to fight the Germans." 

"Yes. And are you aware that the Soviet Union has signed a pact 
of friendship with Germany?" 

"Yes, but I am also aware that the Soviet Union has not declared 
war on France and England." 

"That has not the slightest significance." 

"Then how, finally, does the indictment stand?" 

"Attempting to cross the Soviet-Lithuanian frontier in order to 
fight against the Soviet Union." 

"Could you not substitute the words 'against Germany' for 

* The Russian alphabet has no hard "H" and substitutes for it the letter "G" 


'against the Soviet Union'?" A blow in the face brought me back 
to my senses. "It comes to the same thing, anyway," the judge 
consoled me as I signed the confession of guilt which had been 
placed in front of me. 

It was not until the end of October, when I had already spent five 
months inside the Vitebsk prison, that, together with fifty of the two 
hundred prisoners in my cell, I was called out to hear my sentence. 
1 walked to the office calmly, without a trace of excitement. After a 
sentence of five years' imprisonment had been read out to me, I was 
taken to a different cell, in the side-wing of the Vitebsk prison, to 
wait for my transport. There for the first time I came into contact 
with Russian prisoners. When I came in, several boys, aged 
between fourteen and sixteen, were lying on wooden bunks, and by 
the window, through which I could see a scrap of dark, lead- 
coloured sky, sat a small man with red eyes and a hooked nose, 
munching in silence a piece of stale brown bread. It had been 
raining for several days. The autumn sky hung over Vitebsk like a 
swollen fish-bladder; streams of dirty water poured down through 
the gutter and trickled over the netting which covered the lower half 
of the bars on our window. 

Juvenile delinquents, like the boys in the cell, are the plague of 
the Soviet prisons, though they are almost never found in labour 
camps. Unnaturally excited, always ferreting in other men's bunks 
and inside their own trousers, they give themselves up passionately 
to the only two occupations of their lives, theft and self-abuse. 
Almost all of them either have no parents or else know nothing of 
their whereabouts. Throughout the vast expanse of the Russian 
Police State they manage to lead with astounding ease the typical 
life of "bzeprizornye" ("the homeless"), jumping goods-trains, 
constantly on the move from town to town, from settlement to 
settlement. They make a living by stealing and selling goods from 
government stores, and frequently they steal back what they have 
just sold, blackmailing unsuspecting purchasers with the threat of 
laying information against them. They sleep in railway stations, in 
municipal parks, in tram terminuses; often all their belongings can 
be wrapped in a small bundle tied with a leather strap. Only later I 
discovered that the bezprizornye constitute a most dangerous semi- 
legal mafia, organised on the pattern of masonic lodges, and 
surpassed only by the more powerful organisation of "urkas", or 
criminal prisoners. If in Russia anything like a black market 


exists, it is only thanks to the efforts of these urchins, always 
weaving in and out of crowds, besieging the "spectorgs" (special 
shops supplying exclusively the elite of the Soviet bureaucracy), 
creeping at dusk towards stores of corn and coal. The Soviet 
authorities wink at all this activity; they regard the bezprizornye as 
the only true proletariat free of the original sin of counter-revolution, 
as a plastic mass of raw material which can be moulded into any 
shape they choose. These young boys have come to look on prison 
as something like a holiday-camp, and they take advantage of a 
prison sentence to rest after the exertions of their life outside. 
Occasionally, a vospitatel (education officer), with an angelic 
face, flaxen hair and blue eyes, would come into our cell, and, in a 
voice which sounded like the gentle whisper of the confessional, call 
the handful of bezprizornye out for a "lesson": "Come, children, 
let us go and leaxn a little." When the "children* 9 came back from 
their instruction, our ears burned at the obscenities which they 
mixed freely with the stock phrases of Soviet political propaganda. 
Accusations of "Trotskyism", "nationalism", and "counter- 
revolution" were constantly flung out at us from their corner, then 
assurances that "Comrade Stalin did well to lock you up," or that 
"the power of the Soviets will soon conquer the whole world" all 
this repeated again and again with the cruel, sadistic persistence 
typical of homeless youth. Later in the labour camp I met an 
eigftteen-year-old boy who had been appointed chief of the local 
"Kulturno-Vospitatelnaya Tchast" (cultural and educational 
section) only because once, as a bezprizorny, he had gone through 
such a course of instruction in prison. 

My neighbour under the window looked at me with suspicion 
throughout the first day, incessantly chewing dry crusts of bread 
which he kept in a large sack; this sack lay on his bunk and served 
him as a pillow. He was the only man in the cell to whom I felt any 
desire to speak. Frequently in Soviet prisons one comes across 
people with the stamp of tragedy on their faces. This Jew's narrow 
mouth and hooked nose, the eyes which were always watering as if 
inflamed by dust, the broken sighs and the claw-like hands darting 
to the sack these could mean all, or nothing. 1 remember him best 
as he walked to the latrine on our daily visit there, tripping along 
with little steps; when his turn came, he stood awkwardly over the 
hole and let down his trousers, then carefully lifted the long tail of 
his shirt, and, half-standing, puffed and reddened with the effort. 


He was always the last to be chased out of the latrine, and he 
buttoned up his trousers in the corridor as he walked, hopping- 
aside like a bird to avoid the warder's pushes. Back in the cell, he 
immediately lay down on his bunk, breathing heavily, his old face 
looking like a dried fig. 

"Polish?" he finally asked one evening. 1 nodded. 

"I'd like to know if my son could have been an army captain in 
Poland?" he screeched angrily. 

"I wouldn't know," I answered. "Why are you here?" 

"That isn't important. I can rot away in prison, but my son is a 
captain in the Air Force." 

After the evening roll-call he told me his story, as we lay side by 
side and talked in whispers, careful not to wake our bezprizornye. 
The old Jew had for many years been a shoe-maker in Vitebsk; he 
remembered the Revolution of 1917 and sadly recalled all that had 
happened to him since the day of its outbreak. He had been 
sentenced to five years because, in the local shoe-makers' guild, he 
had opposed the use of leather scraps for soling new shoes. "That 
in itself is nothing," he kept repeating, "you understand, men are 
jealous everywhere. I gave my son a good education, I made him a 
captain in the Air Force how could they be expected to like it that 
an old Jew like me should have a son in the Air Force? But he will 
petition the authorities and they will let me out before my time 
is up. Anyway, whoever heard of using such rubbish for new 
soles?" He raised himself on the bunk, and having made certain 
that the bezprizornye were asleep, ripped open the lining of his 
jacket sleeve, and drew out of the wadding a crumpled photograph 
of a young man with an intelligent face and a hooked nose, in the 
uniform of the Red Air Force. 

Several minutes later, one of the bezprizornye rolled off his bunk, 
relieved himself into the bucket by the door, and knocked on the 
little window. From the corridor we heard the jingling of keys, a 
prolonged yawn, and the sound of studded boots on the stone floor. 
A sleepy eye appeared at the window. "What do you want?" 

"Give me a fag, citizen warder." 

"Back to your titty-bottle, little shit!" the warder growled, and 
the eye disappeared again. 

The boy grabbed the door with both hands, and, standing on his 
toes, yelled into the closed window: "I've got something to tell 


At this, the key turned twice in the lock and the cell door opened 
slightly. Just inside stood a young warder, his cap twisted to one 
side of his head. "Well?" 

"Not here in the corridor." 

The door, with a loud squeak, opened wider, and the boy ducked 
under the warder's hand which was resting on the lock; after a 
while he returned to the cell puffing at a cigarette. Inhaling the 
smoke in greedy gasps, he looked apprehensively in our direction 
and cowered in his corner like a young puppy trying to avoid a kick. 
A quarter of an hour later the door opened wide again, the warder 
entered the cell smartly and sharply called: "Up! Block sergeant! 

The block sergeant began the search with the bezprizornye while 
the warder kept his eyes on the two rows of prisoners who stood to 
attention facing each other with their backs to the bunks. Practised 
hands quickly went through the palliasses of the boys, passed over 
my bunk, and finally plunged inside the old Jew's sack. I heard the 
rustling of paper, and then: 

''What's this? Dollars?" 

"No, that's a photograph of my son, Natan Abramovich 
Zygfeld, Captain of the Red Air Force." 

"Why are you here?" 

"Industrial sabotage." 

"A saboteur of Soviet industry has no right to keep the photo- 
graph of a Red Army officer in his cell." 

"But that is my son ..." 

"Silence. There are no sons in prison." 

When, a few days later, I left the cell to join a transport, the old 
shoe-maker was still rocking on his bunk like a stunned parrot on 
its perch, chewing his crusts and mumbling a few monotonously 
repeated words. 

It was late when we walked to the station, and the town was 
almost empty. The streets, washed down by rain, gleamed in the 
dark light of the evening, like long narrow sheets of mica. The air 
was close and muggy and it was difficult to breathe. The Dzvina 
river, dangerously swollen, rumbled threateningly under the 
sagging planks of the wooden bridge. In the small back streets I 
had a feeling which I cannot explain, that through cracks in the 
wooden shutters people were looking at us from every house. In the 
main street there was more traffic, but groups of people passed us in 


silence, without turning their heads in our direction, looking 
straight in front of them or down at the ground. Five months ago I 
had crossed the same streets of Vitebsk on my way to the prison, on 
a stifling June day, separated from the pavement by a thin steel line 
of bayonets. Then the Dzvina was slowly crawling along its dried- 
up bed; tired men and women walked along the pavements, talking 
little and careful not to stop in the street even for a moment, 
officials in caps with the peaks turned up, workers in overalls 
smeared with machine-oil, schoolboys with satchels on their backs, 
soldiers in high boots smelling of grease, women in drab cotton 
dresses. I would have given much that day to see a group of people 
standing idly and gaily talking together. We passed houses with 
open windows, but there were no gay coloured quilts hanging out to 
air; surreptitiously we looked over fences into gardens and court- 
yards, but there was no washing drying in the sun; we saw a closed 
church with the inscription "anti-religious museum" in front of it; 
we read the patriotic slogans on the streamers displayed across the 
street; we gazed at the enormous red star over the Town Hall. It 
was not so much a town of sadness it was rather a town which 
had never known joy. 

It was November when, after a week's journey, I arrived in 
Leningrad with a convoy of prisoners. On the station platform 
we were divided into groups of ten, which were taken, at short 
intervals, in black prison vans to the "Peresylka" (the Leningrad 
transit prison, a stopping-place for prisoners bound for the labour 
camps). Squeezed in among other prisoners, stifling in the wooden 
box without windows or ventilator, I had no opportunity of seeing 
the town. But when the car turned corners its motion threw me off 
the seat, and through a crack in the partition between the driver's 
cab and the rear of the van I could catch a glimpse of buildings, 
squares and trees. The day was cold but sunny. Snow had already 
fallen, and people in the streets were wearing high winter boots and 
fur caps with ear-flaps. The ear-flaps, like blinkers, allowed them 
to look straight in front without having to pay attention to what was 
happening around them: our transport passed through the town 

Veteran prisoners told me afterwards that Leningrad prisons 
housed forty thousand people at that time. These calculations 


and I am sure that they were quite trustworthy were based chiefly 
on judicious observation and comparison of various facts. In the 
famous Kresty prison, which was composed of one thousand single- 
person cells, the average number in each cell was thirty; we learnt 
this from prisoners from the Kresty, who usually spent the night 
before their transport to the labour camps in the Peresylka. We 
reckoned the numbers in our prison at ten thousand; in cell 
No. 37, to which I was taken, and which was intended, in normal 
conditions, to hold twenty prisoners, there were seventy of us. One 
of the most astonishing and admirable features of the starved 
intellectual life of inmates in these "houses of the dead" is the 
extent to which every experienced prisoner has developed his 
powers of observation. Every cell possesses at least one statistician, 
a scientific investigator of prison life, engrossed day and night in 
assembling a complicated jig-saw puzzle of stories, scraps of 
conversation overheard in corridors, old newspapers found in the 
latrine, administrative orders, movements of vehicles in the court- 
yards, and even the sound of advancing and receding footsteps in 
front of the gate; from these disjointed observations he manages to 
construct a composite picture of the surrounding reality. In 
Leningrad I first heard hypotheses as to the total number of 
prisoners, deportees and white slaves in the Soviet Union. In the 
prison discussions the amount guessed at was always between 
eighteen and twenty-five million. 

After entering the prison, as we were walking along a corridor, 
the party was suddenly met by a group of prisoners marching 
in the opposite direction, towards the main doors. We stopped 
dead, held back by an impulse of fear. The group which had been 
advancing towards us also stopped and retreated a few steps. We 
stood face to face, our heads bowed two worlds, joined by the 
same fate, yet divided by a barrier of fear and uncertainty. The 
warders held a hurried consultation, and decided that my transport 
would have to give way. A side-door was struck with an iron 
knocker, a face appeared behind the window, another short talk 
followed, and we were led into a wide, bright corridor, part of a 
block whose appearance seemed to contradict everything that I had 
so far seen in the course of my prison wanderings. 

This luxurious building with large windows and shining corridors, 
such a fantastic change from the monastic decay characteristic of 
most Russian prisons, is the best wing of the Peresylka. Large 


grilles, sliding on rails, take the place of cell doors along the wall, 
giving an illusion of complete internal freedom and of that 
particular self-discipline which men isolated from the world evolve 
in order to forget their loneliness. The cells were empty and gave 
the impression of living-rooms whose tenants had gone out just 
before our arrival. Through the bars I could see beds with sheets on 
them, bed-side tables with family photographs in frames of coloured 
and silver paper, clothes-hangers, large tables strewn with books, 
newspapers, and chessmen, white shells of wash-basins in the 
corners, wireless-sets and portraits of Stalin; at the end of the 
corridor was a common dining-room, with a raised platform 
probably intended for the performances of musically talented 
prisoners. To appreciate the mental start of astonishment which I 
felt at the sight of Stalin's portrait in a prison cell, it must be 
understood that prisoners in Russia suffer a kind of excom- 
munication from political life and are allowed to take no part in its 
liturgies and sacred rites. The period of repentance must be passed 
without their God, though also without the advantages of enforced 
political atheism. Thus they may not praise Stalin, but neither are 
they free to deny him. 

This was the "Intourist" prison, I think most probably the one 
visited by Lenka von Koerber, the author of an enthusiastic book 
about the Soviet prison system. During the few minutes which I 
spent there I managed to exchange a few words with one of the 
prisoners, who was tidying the cells while the others were at work. 
Tinkering with a wireless-set and not looking in my direction, he 
told me that the prisoners here were full citizens of the Soviet 
Union, serving sentences not exceeding eighteen months for such 
crimes as "mielkaya krazha" (petty theft), "progul" (unpunctuality 
for work), "khuliganstvo" (hooliganism), and other offences against 
factory discipline. They spend their days in workshops within the 
prison boundaries, receive satisfactory wages for their work, eat 
well, and their families are allowed to visit them twice a week. If the 
Soviet authorities created similiar conditions of life for the twenty 
million prisoners and exiles on Russian soil, Stalin could probably 
keep the Army, the N.K.V.D. and the Party in check by the 
creation of a "fourth force". My prisoner did not in any way 
complain about his lack of freedom he was quite comfortable 
there. I asked him if he knew of the fate of prisoners now in other 
blocks of the Peresylka, and in the thousands of camps and 


prisons spread like a wide net over the Soviet Union. Yes, he knew 
all about that, but then those were "politicals". "Those" he 
nodded his head towards the small barred windows of the Pere- 
sylka's other block "those are the living dead. Here one can 
breathe more freely than at liberty." "Our Winter Palace'*, he 
called it affectionately. Stalin knows well, from his own experience, 
that only the "bytoviks", the short-term criminal prisoners, can be 
forced into repentance and humiliation by the provision of humane 
conditions of life in prison, never the politicals. Moreover, the 
better his material conditions in prison, the more persistently does a 
political long for freedom, the more violently will he rebel 
against the authority which has imprisoned him. The prisoners and 
Siberian exiles of Tsarist times were allowed to lead an unbelievably 
comfortable and cultured life, yet these same men later overthrew 
the Tsars. 

The bytovik, like the prisoner to whom I talked, must be 
distinguished from the urka, who is a hardened criminal. 
Although in the labour camps it is possible to come across byto- 
viks whose sentences exceed two years, yet in the hierarchy of the 
camp these occupy an exceptional position, nearer to the privileges 
of the administrative staff than to the status of the average prisoner. 
A bytovik becomes an urka only after he has served several 
terms. An urka seldom leaves the camp at all, but merely 
enjoys a few weeks' occasional freedom, time enough to see to his 
most urgent affairs and commit his next offence. The measure of 
his importance in the labour camp is not only the amount of years 
which he has spent wandering from one camp to another, and the 
seriousness of his offence, but also the size of the fortune which he 
has collected from the black market, theft, and frequently even the 
murder of "byelorutchki", as political prisoners are called (the word 
means "white hands"), the number of cooks and camp officials who 
are friendly to him, his professional qualifications to supervise the 
labour-gangs, or "brigades", of prisoners, and the number of 
women who wait for him, like fresh post-horses for a stage-coach, at 
various points in his journeys through the camps. The urka is an 
institution in the labour camp, the most important person after the 
commander of the guard; he judges the working capacity and the 
political orthodoxy of the prisoners in his brigade, and is often 
entrusted with the most responsible functions, assisted if necessary 
by a technical expert without the urka's camp experience. All 


newly-arrived young girls pass through, his hands before landing up 
in the beds of the camp chiefs. Urkas dominate even the 
"cultural and educational section" of the camp. To these men the 
thought of freedom is as repugnant as the idea of the labour camp is 
to a normal person. 

It was by accident that I joined cell 37 of the Leningrad Pere- 
sylka. When prisoners of the transport were being sorted out in 
the corridor and sent to their particular cells, it was found that my 
name was not on the list. The warder scratched his head helplessly, 
carefully went through the letter G, once more asked me my name 
and Christian name, and finally shrugged his shoulders. "What 
cell were you directed to?"' he asked. From behind the doors on 
each side of the corridor came a restless murmur of voices above 
which I could hear occasional loud conversation and raucous 
singing. Only inside a cell situated a little farther along the corridor 
a pleasant silence seemed to reign, broken every few moments by 
the odd phrase of an exotic song sung in a hoarse, asthmatic voice 
and followed immediately by a sharp chord on the strings of an 
instrument. I made up my mind. "To cell 37," I answered calmly. 

The cell was almost empty. Two rows of wooden bunks, packed 
closely together and each covered with a palliasse, gave some feeling 
of comfort and stability; but when I saw the improvised beds of 
jerkins and overcoats on the floor against the walls, and the 
bundles of clothing piled under the table (in overcrowded cells 
these are untied and laid out only at night, when every available 
scrap of floor-space, benches and even tables are occupied by 
sleeping prisoners), I guessed that there were too many people 
here already. On the ground by the door, next to the bucket, an 
enormous bearded man, with a magnificent head which might have 
been carved out of stone, was lying on a palliasse and calmly 
smoking a pipe. He was staring at the ceiling; one hand was under 
his head, with the other he smoothed and tugged at the jacket of an 
army uniform stripped of its insignia. With every pull at the pipe, a 
cloud of smoke emerged from the bristly beard. In another corner 
of the cell, a man of forty-odd with an intelligent, clean-shaven face, 
dressed in breeches, high boots, and a green wind-jammer, was 
lying on his back, a book propped against his knees. Opposite the 
bearded giant sat a fat Jew in an army uniform open across the 
chest to show bunches of black hair, his naked legs hanging down 
over the bunk. He wore a small beret on his head, and the woollen 


scarf round his neck accentuated the thick lips and the eyes which 
peered from his flabby face like currants pressed into dough, 
separated by a nose like a large gherkin. He was singing, with much 
choking and puffing, a song which I then thought was Italian, 
beating time with one hand on his knee. Next to him, leaning 
against the wall, stood a well-built athletic man, wearing a sailor's 
cap and a striped vest, who plucked idly at the strings of a guitar as he 
stared through the window at the misty outlines of Leningrad. The 
whole scene was reminiscent of a sailor's hostel in a French port. 

Just before lunch the studded door opened wide and about 
seventy prisoners, with their hands still behind their backs, entered 
the room in pairs to the sound of the warder's monotonous counting 
the cell was returning from its walk. Most of the newcomers were 
ageing men in military uniforms and coats which had been stripped 
of insignia ; several of them went straight to their bunks, supporting 
themselves on sticks or on the shoulders of their companions. A 
few young sailors and civilians came in last, and elbowed their way 
through to the table. Three kicks on the door, here as in Vitebsk, 
meant lunch. 

During the meal I noticed a tall, handsome man, who looked at 
me with interest, eating slowly and meditatively, and with a certain 
elegance of gesture, his portion of boiled barley. His large, thought- 
ful eyes were set deep in a bony and wrinkled face: after every bite 
he moved his jaws slowly, as if savouring a rare delicacy. He spoke 
to me first, and told me his story in a stilted and archaically 
ceremonious Polish, a language which he had evidently not spoken 
for many years. He was the descendant of a Polish exile who had 
been sent to Siberia when the Polish Insurrection of 1863 against 
Russia was suppressed; his name was Shklovski and before his 
arrest he had been in command of an artillery regiment in Pushkino 
(formerly Tsarskoye Selo), near Leningrad. Russia he called "my 
country", of Poland he spoke as "the land of our fathers". He was 
in prison because as a colonel, and a Pole by origin, he had not been 
sufficiently interested in the political education of his soldiers. 
"You understand," he smiled gently, "when I was young they 
taught us that the army was there to think little and defend its 
country." I asked what had brought the others here. "These 
generals?'* He shrugged his shoulders. "They are here because 
they took too much interest in politics." 

Shklovski's neighbour at the table was the man in the green 


wind-jammer, who had been reading a book when I first saw him. 
This was Colonel Lavrenti Ivanovich (unfortunately, I can no 
longer remember his surname). He and Shklovski were the most 
junior officers in the cell. When he found that I was a Pole and that 
I had been in Poland during the September campaign of 1939, he 
became interested and began to ask me questions. He told me that 
before he was arrested he had been in Army Intelligence on the 
Soviet-Polish frontier; he knew the whole region like the back of his 
hand, and four years of prison had not impaired the wonderful 
dossier of information which he carried in his head. He could 
remember the dispositions of garrisons, regiments and divisions of 
the Polish frontier guard, as well as the names and the personal 
idiosyncracies of their commanding officers; thus, this one was 
always short of money for cards, that one was mad about horses, a 
third lived in Lida but had a mistress in Baranoviche, while yet 
another was a model officer. He asked me excitedly what part each 
had taken in the September campaign, as a ruined horse-owner 
might enquire about the performances of his horses on foreign race- 
tracks. I knew little and was unwilling to tell him even that, for I 
was still under the impact of the bitter defeat which Poland had 
suffered in the first stages of the war. 

The talks with Lavrenti Ivanovich soon made us close friends, 
and one day our conversation turned to the subject of our cell- 
mates. I remember that evening as if it were yesterday. We were 
sitting on his bunk: next to us dozed a young medical student from 
Leningrad, with a girlish face, who once, in the latrine, asked me in 
a whisper if I had read Gide's Retour de I'U.R.S.S., for judging by 
the articles in the Soviet Press it must be a very interesting book. 
The lights had already come on in the cell, the sailors sat round the 
table playing cards, while the Soviet generals, frozen in attitudes of 
deep reflection, lay on their bunks like two rows of effigies. Lavrenti 
Ivanovich indicated each with a glance, moving only the muscles of 
his face, and throwing out quick explanations by the way, like a 
guide in a museum collection of Egyptian mummies. Of the fat 
Jew, who was as usual humming quietly and swinging his legs, he 
said : "Division political commissar in Spain. He had a hard time at 
the hearing." The large man with the beard he described as an 
engineer, a general of the Air Force, who had recently gone on a 
hunger-strike, demanding a revision of his trial "in view of the needs 
of the Soviet air industry". All the generals had been accused of 


espionage in 1937, and, in the opinion of Lavrenti Ivanovich, the 
whole affair was a German plot organised on a vast scale. German 
Intelligence had submitted to Soviet Intelligence, through a neutral 
intermediary,* faked proofs of espionage, heavily implicating many 
members of the Soviet General Staff, who at various periods during 
their service had spent some time in Germany. The Germans hoped 
to paralyse the Soviet high command, and Soviet Intelligence was 
still in a state of exaggerated suspicion after the Tukhachevsky plot. 
If the Russo-German war had broken out in 1938, the Staff reserves 
of the Red Army would have been extremely meagre. The opening 
of the Second World War had saved the prisoners of cell 37 from 
death sentences, and had suddenly stopped the wheel of investigation 
and torture on which they were being slowly broken. Their hopes 
lay with the outbreak of a Russo-German war, when they expected 
to be freed, reinstated in their posts and commands, and given full 
pay for the four years which they had spent in prison, f The 
sentences of ten years which had been read out to them after three 
and a half years imprisonment, a month before my arrival, they 
considered to be no more than a formality designed to save the face 
of the N.K.V.D. For to the occupants of cell 37 the opening of a 
Russo-German war was an unquestionable certainty even in Novem- 
ber 1940; they believed in its victorious conclusion, but the idea that 
any fighting would take place inside Russian territory never even 
occurred to them. After the evening roll-call, when the per- 
ambulating shop which sold cigarettes, newspapers and sausages 
was wheeled into the cell, J Lavrenti Ivanovich the most junior in 
age and rank would climb on to the table and read aloud from 
Pravda and hvestia identical news bulletins from the Western 
It was the only moment during the whole day when the generals 

* I have since heard the theory that this neutral intermediary, acting at the 
time with the best of intentions, was actually Dr. Benes. 

t It seems that their expectations were realised. Isaac Deutscher's new 
biography of Stalin contains the following passage (p. 486) : "Survivors of the 
crushed oppositions, who could be useful in the war effort, were brought out 
of concentration camps and assigned to important national work. Tuk- 
hacheysky's disciples who had been cashiered and deported were rushed back 
to military headquarters. Among them, according to one reliable report, was 
Rokossovsky, the victor of Stalingrad, a former Polish communist, who had 
served as liaison officer between Tukhachevsky's staff and the Comintern." I 
expect that among those freed were also the generals of cell 37, for their 
indictments were partly based on the Tukhachevsky plot. 

J I never saw a similar shop in any other Russian prison, and I believe that 
this amenity was a privilege granted specially to the generals of cell 37, 


roused themselves from their lethargy and discussed with animation 
the chances of both sides. It struck me that when the conversation 
turned on Russia's potential military strength, there was no trace of 
bitterness, rebellion or even complaint in their pronouncements, 
only the sadness of men who have been torn away from their life's 
work. I once asked Lavrenti Ivanovich about this. He said: "In a 
normal state, men are free to be contented, fairly contented, or dis- 
contented. In a state in which all are supposed to be contented, the 
suspicion arises that all are discontented. Either way, we form a 
solid whole." 

General Artamian, the bearded Armenian from the Air Force, 
got up for a few minutes every evening, and took his massive body 
for a walk round the bunks "in order to stretch the bones a bit". 
After every such walk he lay down again in his old place, and puffing 
heavily, breathed in and out several times. He did all this with 
enormous gravity and an astonishing punctuality: his evening 
exercise told us that supper would soon be there. 

My first day in cell 37 was also the third day of his hunger- 
strike; after I had been there ten days it was still on. Artamian 
grew pale, his walks and his breath became shorter every day, and 
he coughed violently after every first deep puff of a fresh pipe. He 
demanded to be freed and reinstated in his work, drawing attention 
to his revolutionary past and his services to the State. The N.K.V.D. 
offered to let him work under a guard in a Leningrad aeroplane 
factory, with a separate cell in the "Winter Palace". Every three 
days the warder brought him a magnificent food parcel "from his 
wife", though he heard and knew nothing of her, as she was most 
probably living in forced exile in some remote part of Russia. 
Artamian would get up from his bunk, offer the food all round, and 
when the offer was met by silence, would call the warder in from the 
corridor, and in his presence throw the whole lot into the bucket. 

Thougji I slept on the floor near the bucket, and therefore next 
to his bunk, he never spoke to me. However, on my last night in the 
Leningrad prison, when unusual movements in the corridor seemed 
to warn us that a transfer was imminent, neither of us slept. I lay 
on my back, with my hands folded under my head, and listened to 
the noise of footsteps increasing on the other side of the door like 
the roar of a river gathering force behind a dam. The puffs of 
smoke from Artamian's pipe dimmed the light of the bulb, and the 
cell was in half-darkness. Suddenly his hand left the bunk and 


groped for mine. When I gave it to him, he raised himself slightly 
on the bedding, guided it under the blanket and pressed it to his 
chest. Through the ragged shirt I could feel uneven swellings and 
depressions on his ribs. He guided it farther down, below the 
knee the same thing there. I had been told by Lavrenti Ivanovich 
that most of the generals had been beaten during their hearings, but 
I had not supposed that it was to the extent of broken bones, I 
wanted to speak to Artamian but he seemed to be deep in thought, 
and his immovable bearded face showed only exhaustion. 

After midnight the movements in the corridor grew even louder; 
I could hear the opening and closing of cell doors, and monotonous 
voices chanting lists of names. After every "present" the stream of 
human bodies grew, their muffled whispers echoing in the corridor. 
At last the door of cell 37 opened Shklovski and myself for the 
transport. While I knelt and rapidly tied up my ragged bundle, 
Artamian once more gripped my hand and squeezed it warmly. 
He did not say a word and did not look at me. We came out into the 
corridor and joined the crowd of sweat-drenched, steaming, sleepy 
bodies, crouched fearfully against the walls, like the rags of human 
misery in a city sewer. 

Shklovski and I travelled together in the same compartment of a 
"Stolypin carriage".* He spread his greatcoat on the bench and 
remained in the corner of the compartment during the whole 
journey, sitting with straight back, silent and severe, his uniform 
buttoned up to the neck, hands folded across his knees. Besides us, 
there were three urkas, criminal prisoners, who immediately began 
to play cards on the upper, folding bench. One of them, a gorilla 
with a flat Mongolian face, told us before the train had even left the 
station that in Leningrad he had at last got a fifteen-year sentence 
for killing with an axe the cook at the Pechora camp, who had 
refused to give him an additional helping of barley. He said this 
with a certain pride in his voice, without interrupting the game. 
Shklovski sat unmoved with his eyes half-closed, while I forced 
myself to laugh. 

It must have been much later, for the train had left the forest, and 
the grey light of dawn was showing over the snow-covered slopes, 
when the gorilla suddenly threw down his cards, jumped down from 
the bench and came up to Shklovski. 

* These were railway carriages with barred windows for transporting prison- 
ers, so called after the Tsarist minister who first introduced them in Russia. 


"Give me that coat," he yelled, "I've lost it at cards." 

Shklovski opened his eyes and, without moving from his seat, 
shrugged his shoulders. 

"Give it to me," the gorilla roared, enraged, "give it, or glaza 
vykolu I'll poke your eyes out!" The colonel slowly got up and 
handed over the coat. 

Only later, in the labour camp, I understood the meaning of this 
fantastic scene. To stake the possessions of other prisoners in their 
games of cards is one of the urkas' most popular distractions, and 
its chief attraction lies in the fact that the loser is obliged to force 
from the victim the object previously agreed upon. In 1937, during 
the pioneer period of labour camps, they played for human lives, 
for there was then no more precious possession; a political prisoner, 
sitting at one end of a barrack, did not guess that the greasy cards, 
falling with a smack on the small plank spread across the knees of 
the players, were deciding his fate. "Glaza vykolu" was the greatest 
threat which the urkas wielded: two fingers of the right hand, out- 
stretched in the shape of the letter V, made straight for the victim's 
eyes. The only defence against this movement was to bring the edge 
of the hand up rapidly and put it against the nose and forehead. 
The menacing fingers of the attacker split against it like waves 
against the prow of a ship. Later I noticed that Shklovski's 
gorilla had not much chance of carrying out his threat, for the index 
finger of his right hand was missing. This kind of self-mutilation 
was very common in the early years of the labour camps, when a leg 
or an arm, slashed with an axe on a pine block, was known, 
especially among the forest brigades, as the surest way of gaining 
access to a hospital when at the end of one's strength. The inhuman 
thoughtlessness of Soviet labour camp legislation has created a 
situation in which a prisoner who drops dead at his work from 
exhaustion is just a nameless unit of energy, which with one stroke 
of the pencil is eliminated from the plan of production, while a 
prisoner wounded at work is a damaged machine, which is sent off 
for repairs as soon as possible. 

When the train reached Vologda I was the only one to be taken 
from the compartment. "Good-bye," I said to Shklovski. 
"Good-bye," he replied as we shook hands, "and may you return 
to the land of our fathers." 

I passed a day and a night in the prison of Vologda, whose little 
corner towers and red wall surrounding a large courtyard gave 


it the appearance of a small medieval castle. In the cellars, in a 
small cell which had no window but only a hole the size of a man's 
head in the wall, I slept on the bare earth. Around me lay peasants 
from the neighbouring countryside, who could not tell day from 
night, did not remember the time of the year or the name of the 
month, had no idea why they were in prison, how long they had 
been there, or how long they would remain there. Lying on their 
fur greatcoats, fully dressed, in their shoes, and unwashed, they 
talked feverishly through their half-sleep of their families, homes 
and cattle. 

The next night I travelled with another transport and arrived at 
dawn at the station of Yercevo, near Archangel, where an escort 
was waiting for us. We dispersed from the carriages on to the 
crackling snow amid the howling of bloodhounds and the orders of 
the guards. The sky was pale from the frost and the last stars still 
flickered. It seemed to me that they would go out any minute and 
then the dark, thick night would emerge from the still forest and 
swallow up the shimmering sky and the pale dawn concealed in the 
cold flames of the fires. But, round the first bend of the road, I 
could see on the horizon the silhouettes of four crow's-nests placed 
high on wooden stilts and surrounded by barbed wire. Lights 
gleamed in barrack windows and well-chains could be heard slipping 
on their frozen capstans. 


THE word "proizvol" is now probably unknown to most Soviet 
prisoners. Roughly translated, it means the regime enforced by the 
urkas within the wired-off camp zone between late evening and 
dawn. The reign of the proizvol in the majority of Russian 
labour camps began in 1937 and was suppressed towards the end of 

The "pioneer" period of Soviet labour camps is itself generally 
dated from 1937 until 1940, though it varied according to differences 
in local conditions. In the minds of old Russian prisoners, who 
were fortunate enough to survive the years of the Great Purge and 
of the "socialist construction in one country" based on mass use of 
forced labour, " 'thirty-seven" is a date similar to the date of the 
birth of Christ in the mind of a Christian, or that of the destruction 
of Jerusalem in the mind of an Orthodox Jew. "It was in 'thirty- 
seven" constantly I heard these words spoken at the camp in a 
whisper full of terror and unhealed suffering, as if that year had been 
one of famine, plague and civil war. In the revolutionary calendar 
there is a whole number of such fundamental historical occurrences, 
which, however, in the custom of the New Era, are seldom defined 
by dates. For very old people the turning-point is the October 
Revolution, and that date could more justifiably be accepted as the 
beginning of the New Era, for everything which has ever occurred 
in the annals of mankind is classified by the words "before" and 
"after". Thus, according to the political attitude of the speaker, 
"before'* and "after" mean either poverty and contentment, or 
contentment and poverty; but in both cases anything which 
happened in Russia before the storming of the Winter Palace in St. 
Petersburg merges into the dusk of pre-history. Younger people (I 
am of course still speaking of the labour camps) reckon the Era 
differently. For them the Tsar means unquestionably "poverty, 
slavery, and oppression", and Lenin "white bread, sugar, and lard". 
These milestones are fixed in their primitive historical conscious- 
ness by the stories of their fathers, but the real turning-point for 
them is the year 1937, the year of the "second revolution". 



The first two friends that I made in the camp both belonged to the 
remains of the "Old Guard" of 1937. The first, Polenko, an 
agricultural engineer, had been found guilty of sabotaging 
collectivisation, and the other, Karbonski, a telephone engineer 
from Kiev, was imprisoned for maintaining contact with his 
relatives in Poland. From what they told me I learnt that the 
Kargopol camp, which in 1940, at the time of my arrival, consisted 
of several "camp-sections" (the largest were Mostovitza, 
Ostrovnoye, Krouglitza, Nyandoma, the two Alexeyevkas, ajid 
my own Yercevo), each a camp in itself, distributed within a radius 
of about thirty-five miles, and containing altogether something like 
thirty thousand prisoners, had been founded four years before by 
six hundred prisoners, who one night were simply put out of a 
transport train near Yercevo station, in the middle of the virgin 
northern forest. Conditions were hard: the temperature was not 
infrequently as low as forty degrees below zero centigrade; their 
food did not exceed 300 grammes of black bread and a plate of hot 
soup every twenty-four hours; they slept in shacks of fir branches 
which they built round a constantly burning fire, while their guards 
lived in small huts fixed on sledge runners. The prisoners began 
their work by making a clearing in the forest and putting up a small 
hospital barrack in the middle of it. Then came the discovery that 
self-mutilation at work gave a prisoner the privilege of spending 
several weeks under a real roof which did not constantly send down 
a shower of melting snow, and near a small iron stove which was 
always red-hot; but the number of accidents at work became so 
great that the wounded were usually packed off on a sledge to the 
nearest hospital, at Nyandoma, about twenty-five miles from 
Yercevo. At the same time the death-rate among prisoners rose in 
an alarming way. The first to die were Polish and German com- 
munists who had fled to Russia from their own countries to avoid 
prison. According to my two friends, it was far more horrible to 
watch the death of Poles than to listen to the endless feverish 
delirium of Germans. Polish communists, mostly Jews, died 
suddenly, like birds falling off a branch in hard frost, or like those 
fishes of the ocean depths which burst from inner pressure when 
they are brought up to the surface from the deep. One short 
cough, one hardly audible gasp, a tiny, white cloud of breath which 
hung for a moment in the air, and the head fell heavily on the 
breast while the hands, with a last movement, scraped the snow on 


the ground. And that was all not a cry, not even a complaint. 
. . . After the Poles and the Germans it was the turn of the 
Ukrainians and the natives of Central Asia, the Kazaks, Uzbeks, 
Turcomen and Kirghiz who are all known as "nacineny". Russians, 
Baits and Finns (who are expert foresters) held out best, and their 
daily rations were therefore increased by a hundred grammes of 
bread and an additional ladleful of soup a day. During the first few 
months, when the high mortality rate and the primitive conditions 
of the camp made it difficult for the guards to keep a careful check 
on prisoners, frozen bodies were sometimes concealed in the shacks 
while their rations of bread and soup were collected by other 
prisoners. Soon barracks sprang up in the clearing, which was 
already surrounded by barbed wire, and every day the brigades of 
"lesoruby" or foresters, swollen by fresh contingents from the 
prisons, cut their way farther into the forest, leaving behind them 
their dead and a wooden track for sledges and cars. 

By 1940 Yercevo was already an important centre of the Kargopol 
timber industry with a saw-mill, two branch lines from the railway, 
its own food supply centre, and a separate village beyond the camp 
zone for the free administrative staff. All this had been built by the 

From these early pioneer days the tradition of the proizvol has 
been handed down.* When there were as yet no sheds which could 
be locked for the night, in which the prisoners were able to deposit 
sharp tools such as saws, axes, and billhooks after work, and when 
the control of the guards over prisoners did not go beyond the end 
of a bayonet or the beam of a searchlight, some of the tools found 
their way into the barracks in the evenings. The first contingents 
of urkas, which came to the camp in 1938, took advantage of this 
state of affairs to proclaim within the camp zone, from dusk till 
dawn, a miniature "prisoners' republic", holding their own trials 
and meting out justice to the politicals at night. No guard 
would have dared to show himself inside the barracks after dark, 
even when the horrible moans and cries of political prisoners who 
were being slowly murdered could be heard all over the camp; he 
could never be certain that a billhook would not appear from 
behind one of the barrack corners and split his head open. As 

* A certain Bessarabian communist told me that in 1938, in a camp in the 
Solovetsky Islands, he witnessed the brutal beating-up of Karol Radek, one 
of the victims of the "proizvol" there. 


complaints to the authorities in the daytime produced little result, 
the political prisoners organised their own defence groups, and this 
civil war between a demoralised proletariat and a revolutionary 
intelligentsia lasted, though gradually weakening in tension, until 
the beginning of 1939. In that year new technical arrangements 
and strengthened garrisons in the camp allowed the N.K.V.D. to 
take the initiative into their own hands. In 1940 the remains of the 
prisoners' republic existed only in order to facilitate the night 
hunts for newly-arrived women which the urkas organised in the 
camp zone. A year and a half before my arrival there, the first 
women's barrack had been built in the camp. In justice to the 
N.K.V.D. it should be said that they tolerated these night hunts 
only within the open camp zone the door of the women's barrack 
itself was within the distance of a rifle-shot from the guard-house. 
New women arrivals were usually warned by experienced women 
prisoners of the danger which threatened them, but it sometimes 
happened that they did not believe these warnings. If they com- 
plained in the guard-house the morning after the "accident", they 
were met with derision; and besides, what woman would have been 
willing to risk bringing on herself the merciless revenge of the 
urkas? From the moment of her arrival, she learnt the rules of the 
struggle for survival in the camp and instinctively obeyed them, 
either keeping to the barrack after dark, or else finding a protector 
among the urkas. In the beginning of 1941 these night hunts were 
also suppressed by the N.K.V.D. Life became for some more 
bearable, for others "just dull". 

Arriving in the camp while the prisoners were at work, I spent the 
day in an empty barrack and toward evening, when I felt that I had 
a chill and a high temperature, I took the advice of the priest 
Dimka and crawled to the medical hut. Dimka, an old man with a 
wooden leg who was a kind of barrack orderly, advised me to pester 
the doctor until he agreed to send me to the hospital. "After a 
stretch in prison," he said, "you need a rest before you can take up 
honest work again." We both smiled at the word "honest". Then 
the priest picked up a wooden yoke, put it across his shoulders, and 
lifted two buckets from the ground with iron hooks which hung 
from the yoke. This was the most important hour of his idle day. 
He had already scrubbed the floor, thrown wood into the stove, 
and was now off to get boiled drinking water and "hvoya", a dark- 
green infusion of pine-needles, which was supposed to counteract 


vitamin deficiency. The few fortunate victims of scurvy in the 
camp could obtain from the doctor a certificate entitling them to 
receive "cyngotnoye pytanye" a daily spoonful of chopped-up 
raw vegetables, usually onions, carrots, turnips and beetroots. 
Almost invariably requests for cyngolnoye were made in the 
hope of getting an extra spoonful of food, not medicine. 

The sky over the camp zone was already grey, but the weather 
was almost mild. The first wisps of smoke were appearing above 
the barracks and sweeping the gables with their wide plumes, while 
the frosty window-panes shone with a dim light. All round the 
horizon stretched the dark wall of the forest. The paths through 
the camp zone were made of two planks, laid side by side; they 
were swept every day by the priests, who cleared away the snow with 
large wooden shovels, and piled it in heaps, which sometimes 
reached to the waist, on either side. The whole camp looked like an 
enormous clay-pit, covered with a network of small channels for 
railway trucks. The doors of the guard-house were already open to 
admit the first brigades returning from work. On a high platform 
outside the kitchen stood a queue of ragged shadows, in fur caps 
with flaps over their ears, their feet and legs wrapped in rags and 
tied about with string, who were reminding the cook of their 
existence with an impatient tinkling of billy-cans. 

The medical hut was situated near the women's barrack. The 
doctor and his orderly received patients behind a plywood partition ; 
in the corner by the door sat a ragged, -shaggy old man with steel 
spectacles, who welcomed all who came in with a gentle look from 
his little eyes, and with undisguised joy entered their names on the 
list of patients. He seemed to be quite at home there; not only did 
he inscribe, in a beautiful handwriting, the names of patients on 
his list, and constantly throw small logs into the stove, but he also 
asked each newcomer, with a comical gravity, about his troubles 
and symptoms, and every now and then would shout poking his 
shaggy head round the partition "Tatiana Pavlovna, it seems to 
me that this is a very serious case/' and, returning to his stool with 
satisfaction, would stir the remains of some soup warming in a small 
billy-can on the edge of the stove. A pleasant female voice would 
invariably answer: "Be good enough to wait a moment, Matvei 
Kirylovich," which caused the old man to spread his hands in the 
gesture of a busy official. These vestiges of an unusual, exaggerated 
courtesy could be found in camps only among older people. 


The majority of those waiting in the hut were nacmeny, the 
Mongolian inhabitants of Central Asia. Even in the waiting-room 
they clasped their stomachs in pain, and the moment they entered 
behind the partition burst into a sorrowful whining, in which 
moans were mixed indistinguishably with their curious broken 
Russian. There was no remedy for their disease, and they were 
usually regarded as incurable simulants. They were dying simply 
of homesickness, of longing for their native country, of hunger, 
cold and of the monotonous whiteness of snow. Their slanting 
eyes, unused to the northern landscape, were always watering and 
their eyelashes were stuck together by a thin yellow crust. On the 
rare days on which we were free from work, the Uzbeks, Turcomen 
and Kirghiz gathered in a corner of the barrack, dressed in their 
holiday clothes, long coloured silk robes and embroidered skull- 
caps. It was impossible to guess of what they talked with such great 
animation and excitement, gesticulating, shouting each other down 
and nodding their heads sadly, but I was certain that it was not of 
the camp. Often, late in the evening, after the old men among them 
had wandered off to their own barracks for the night, the young 
men stayed in pairs on their bunks and for hours at a time stroked 
each other's necks, faces and backs. As their movements became 
slower, their bodies stiffened with tension, and their eyes were 
glazed and misted. I have no idea how these caresses ended, and I 
never saw any actual sodomy among the nacmeny, but during 
the whole year and a half which I spent in the camp, only once did a 
Turcoman woman pass through Yercevo. The group of Mongolians 
received her as an honoured guest in their corner, and she was 
escorted back to the women's barrack before nightfall; the next day 
she left with a transport. 

Tatiana Pavlovna, the doctor, turned out to be a polite, elderly 
woman, who directed me to the hospital without making any 
difficulties when she found that I really had a high temperature. 
"The card Fve given you won't take care of everything," she said as 
I left, "sometimes one has to wait a very long time for a free bed." 
As I returned to the barrack to collect my belongings, the camp 
zone was already quite dark. I could see, stumbling down the paths, 
several victims of the night blindness which is a common result of 
malnutrition, carefully groping along the slippery, ice-covered 
barrack walls, and warding off with fluttering fingers the black 
curtain before their eyes. Occasionally one of them fell into a snow- 


drift, and dug himself out again with awkward despairing move- 
ments of the body, softly calling for help. Healthy prisoners passed 
them by unheeding and walked quickly on, their eyes fixed on the 
welcoming lights of barrack windows. 

In the hospital I had to spend only one night on the floor in the 
passage, and then two weeks in a clean bed in the ward. That 
period I remember as one of the happiest of my life. My skin, 
which had not known the touch of sheets for a whole year, seemed 
to open all its pores with relief, and a deep sleep brought me 
feverish recollections I slept for twenty-four hours. In the bed 
next to mine lay a large man suffering from "pylagra", a mysterious 
disease of which I know only that its symptoms are loss of hair and 
teeth, attacks of prolonged melancholia, and also, I believe, 
rupture. Every day, after waking up, my neighbour threw off his 
bedclothes and for several minutes ponderously weighed his 
testicles in the palm of his hand. His cure consisted exclusively of 
lumps of margarine like small boxes, which he received for break- 
fast with a portion of white bread. Those who had once contracted 
pylagra never returned to normal health. After leaving the 
hospital they were moved straight to the barrack where those no 
longer fit for work could spend the whole day lying on their bunks 
without stirring, and were fed on smaller rations; this barrack was 
known in the camp as the bone-shop or the mortuary. During my 
stay in hospital I made friends with the nurse, an unusually devoted 
and helpful Russian woman from Vyatka, who had been sentenced 
to ten years for her father's counter-revolutionary activities; the 
father, if he was still alive, had spent the years since 1937 in closed, 
isolated camps, and as he was not allowed to write or receive letters, 
his daughter knew neither where nor in what conditions he was 
living. Sister Tamara gave me Griboyedov's Collected Works, and, 
apart from Dostoevsky's The House of the Dead, this was the only 
book which I ever tried to read during my stay in the camp. 

When I returned to the barrack, I was allowed three days' further 
rest, so that I had plenty of time in which to consider my position. 
In theory, there were three possibilities before me: I would be 
assigned to one of the brigades of foresters, or I would be sent to 
another section of the Kargopol camp, or, if I wished to avoid 
either alternative, I would have to start looking after my own 
interests. Work in the forest from dawn to dusk, standing up to the 
waist in snow, was not above the capacities of a healthy man, but I 


dreaded the walk of three miles to and from work, through a forest 
full of snowdrifts and large treacherous pits which were dug to 
catch wolves; my legs had swollen so much in prison that I could 
hardly stand in the food-line. From the accounts of other prisoners 
I gathered that Yercevo was the best section of the Kargopol camp, 
while the others, especially the penal camp of the second Alex- 
eyevka, were for the most part full of Poles who had been sent 
there to die by inches. Following the advice of Dimka, who 
became my best friend, I sold my high officer's boots for 900 
grammes of bread to an urka from the railway porters' brigade. 
The same evening he gave me his answer: the camp command 
had agreed that I should join brigade 42, and recommended me to 
report at the camp store to draw out a "bushlat" (a long-sleeved 
jerkin lined with wadding), a cap with ear-flaps, wadded trousers, 
waterproof gloves made of sailcloth, and "valonki" (shoes made of 
sheepskin, cowhide and horsehide) of best quality, i.e. new or worn 
only a little a full set of clothing such as is usually issued only to 
the best "stakhanovite" brigades of prisoners. I knew from Dimka 
what to expect from the work of a porter at the food supply centre. 
The work itself was heavy, for an average twelve-hour working day 
meant carrying twenty-five tons of flour in sacks, or eighteen tons of 
rye without sacks, over a distance of thirty yards from the truck to 
the store: as the number of trucks on the siding was greater than 
usual, we had to work sometimes for twenty hours at a stretch. On 
the other hand, the supply centre was beyond the camp zone, and it 
was possible to steal food there. "You'll have to work a bit," 
Dimka told me, "but you'll also eat well. In the forest, you can 
warm yourself at the fire and die of hunger. You can't eat bark. 
But here I shall have your hvoya waiting for you." For the 
moment, then, I was saved. Lying on an upper bunk by the window, 
I looked round the 42nd "international brigade". The eight best 
places out of about two hundred in the barrack were taken up by a 
gang of urkas, led by Koval, the pock-marked Ukrainian bandit to 
whom I had sold my boots. The rest were a mixture of communists 
from all over Europe, and one Chinaman. 

That same evening, shortly before midnight Dimka usually got 
up at that hour, to rummage in the refuse buckets for herring-heads 
which would make the soup for his next day's lunch Koval, who 
was lying on his stomach by the window, his face pressed to the 
glass, suddenly jumped off the bunk and with a few quick nudges 


woke up his companions. After a while they all gathered round a 
small space in the window where the frost had melted, looked out at 
the camp zone, whispered among themselves and walked out. All 
this took no more than a minute, during which I lay with my eyes 
closed, breathing heavily as if asleep. There was complete silence in 
the barrack after they left; along the two rows of bunks men were 
sleeping in their clothes, open mouths greedily gasping at the hot 
air. After the last urka had disappeared through the door, I quickly 
turned over on my stomach and breathed on the window over my 
bunk until I had cleared a small round judas in the frost. A 
hundred yards beyond our barrack the ground sloped to form a 
large hollow which continued on the other side of the barbed wire. 
The neighbouring barracks were placed at the edge of the hollow, 
so that it was out of sight of the guard-house and the upper part of 
the camp zone. The bottom of the hollow could be seen well only 
from the top of the highest watch-tower, but if the guard was 
sitting with his face turned towards the camp and his back against 
the wall of his crow's-nest he could see only the further, outlying 
part of the slope. From the direction of the hospital a young well- 
built girl was crossing the deserted zone on her way to the women's 
barrack, and in order to make a short cut and avoid walking round 
by the barbed wire, she would have to pass along the inner edge of 
the hollow, just in front of our barrack. Eight shadows rapidly 
dispersed among the barracks on the left side of the hollow, so that 
each outlet of the path was guarded. The girl was walking straight 
into the trap. In the snow-muffled silence of the camp the night 
hunt was on. 

The girl was now walking along the path on a level with our 
barrack, half-hidden by a large snowdrift. From the distance I 
could see only that she had broad shoulders and a wide face, tied 
round with a head scarf whose ends fluttered behind her in the wind 
like the tail of a kite. Before she reached the bend of the path, the 
first shadow stepped out from behind a barrack and stood in her 
way. The girl started and gave a short cry, which was stifled as the 
shadow jumped at her throat, caught the back of her neck with one 
hand and put the other over her mouth. The girl bent back like a 
bow, and raising her left leg from the ground, pushed the knee into 
the attacker's stomach, and at the same time grasped his beard with 
both hands, pushing the great fur-capped head away with all her 
strength. The shadow made a half-circle with his left foot, and with 


a sharp kick knocked her right leg from under her. They both fell 
into the snowdrift together at the very moment when the other 
seven ran up from all directions. 

They dragged her, holding her by the hands and legs, while her 
hair tumbled loosely behind, to the bottom of the hollow, and threw 
her down on a snow-covered bench, about twenty-five yards from 
the barrack. She met the first with a furious kicking of her legs, 
freed for a moment from his grasp, but soon she was quiet again, 
choked by the skirt which was thrown over her head, and Koval's 
great paw, which he placed over her face, forcing her head down on 
the bench. The first pinned her right leg to the back of the bench 
with one knee, and with his other leg pressed on the inside of the 
thigh which was hanging in mid-air and moving convulsively. 
While two others held her wrists, the first, half-kneeling, was tearing 
off her underclothes and calmly unbuttoning his trousers. After a 
moment her body began to rock convulsively and Koval had to 
loosen the grip of his fingers with each uneven jerk of her head. 
The second and third had an easier task, and, encouraged by the 
sudden calm of her body, impatiently dug for her breasts in the 
rumpled bundle of her skirt and blouses. But, when it was the turn 
of the fourth, she managed for a moment to free her head from 
Koval's relaxed fingers, and in the frosty silence she let out a short, 
throaty cry, full of tears and muffled by her skirt. A sleepy voice 
called from the nearest watch-tower: "Come, come, boys, what are 
you doing? Have you no shame?" 

They pulled her off the bench, and, like a limp rag doll, dragged 
her behind the barrack, to the latrine. The space before my window 
was empty; only round the bench and on both sides of the path there 
were dark rifts where the high banks of snow had been trampled. 
After about an hour seven of them returned to the barrack. Then 
I saw Koval taking the girl back to the women's barrack. She 
walked slowly, stumbling and tripping on the path, head drooping 
to one side, with arms folded across her breasts, supported round 
the waist by the strong arm of her companion. 
The next evening Marusia came to our barrack. There were still 
traces of congealed blood on her cheeks, and her eyes were bruised, 
but she looked pretty in a coloured skirt and a white, embroidered 
linen blouse, in which two large breasts swung loosely like round 
loaves of bread. She sat, as if nothing had happened, on Koval's 
bunk, with her back to the other urkas, and gently pressing close to 


him she kept whispering in his ear, kissing his pock-marked cheek 
with tears in her eyes. Koval at first sat grumpily by her side and 
from under his low forehead threw embarrassed glances at his 
companions, but in the end he let her persuade him. She stayed, 
and throughout that night we were constantly woken from our 
feverish sleep by her tender exclamations of love, cries of pain, and 
Koval's rhythmical breathing. She stole out of the barrack before 
dawn, followed by the careful, wavering tread of her exhausted 
lover. After that she came every evening and often sang before 
nightfall, in a strong voice which trailed off into a mournful squeal 
at the end of each phrase, Ukrainian songs about "the boy who 
used to come to my house" and "the fine life a man can have with a 
milkmaid". She became a water-carrier in the camp, and we all 
liked her broad, swarthy face, her fair hair loose and flying in the 
wind as she sat on the sled and spurred her horse with loud cracks 
of the whip or nervous tugs at the reins. Beyond the zone, where, 
as a criminal prisoner, she was allowed to go for water without a 
guard, she sometimes begged a few gay pictures or coloured paper 
cut-outs, and in the evenings they would be pinned on the dirty wall 
above her lover's bunk. 

But the brigade was not working well since the memorable night 
of the hunt. Koval went to work half-conscious; his legs bowed 
under the weight of heavy sacks, he often missed his turn at the 
trucks, and several times even fell off the loading-stage on to the 
rails. Once, while we were enjoying a short break from work inside 
a small watchman's hut, Wang the Chinaman observed that "One 
of the horses in the team ought to be changed," and was im- 
mediately silenced by a look from the other urkas. We noticed, 
however, that they too stopped talking and smiled contemptuously 
whenever Koval came near them for a cigarette. He took to going 
about by himself, ate from his own separate bowl, and after supper 
would put on my officer's boots and an embroidered Ukrainian 
shirt, then lie down on his bunk with a cigarette and listen for the 
sound of splashing water as the last barrel of the day was driven to 
the kitchen. 

One evening, when Marusia, who never spoke to anyone in our 
barrack, was sitting as usual next to Koval, her arms entwined 
round his waist, one of the urkas tapped her lightly on the shoulder 
and spoke a few words to her. The girl slowly unwound her arms, 
turned her head and looked at the man with loathing; suddenly she 


raised her whole body and, with the gleam of a mortally wounded 
animal in her eyes, spat straight in his face. The blinded urka took a 
step back, wiped his face with his sleeve, and spreading out the two 
fingers of his right hand, drew back for the dreaded blow. At that 
moment Koval sprang up from the bunk and threw himself at the 
other. They struggled for a moment, and when they were separated, 
Koval found himself facing seven pairs of hostile eyes. He turned 
to the girl, who was cowering in the corner, pulled his torn shirt 
round him and through clenched teeth said in a voice which chilled 
my blood: "Lie down, you bitch, and off with your clothes, or I'll 
choke the life out of you." Then to his friends: "She's yours, 

First came the urka at whom she had spat. Marusia now took 
them without any resistance, gently opening her thighs, cupping her 
hands round the swinging buttocks above her, and not complaining 
even when their impatient hands crushed her breasts. Her head 
hung down over the end of the bunk, and her wide eyes looked 
persistently at Koval, who was sitting by the table, while her pale 
lips whispered softly: "Forgive me, Timosha, forgive me." Koval 
did not get up from his seat even when, as she was leaving the 
barrack, she looked back at him once more with eyes full of an un- 
bounded, down-trodden love. Long after she left, the air was full 
of a sharp smell of sweat, sperm and hvoya. 

After three days, at her own request, Marusia left Yercevo for 
Ostrovnoye. The eight urkas in the barrack returned to their former 
brotherhood, which until the end of my stay in the camp was never 
again disturbed by the slightest symptoms of human feeling. 



AT half-past five in the morning the barrack doors opened with a 
clatter, and the silence, disturbed only by the last sighs of sleep, was 
broken by a loud shout of "Padyom let's go." A moment later the 
"razvodchyk", a prisoner responsible for the march-out of the 
brigades to work, walked briskly along the rows of bunks, tugging 
the sleepers by their legs. The prisoners moved heavily on their 
bunks, threw aside the coats covering their heads, and slowly, as if 
their bodies were held down by invisible bonds, sat up, only to fall 
back on to the bunks with moans of pain a moment later. Then the 
"dnevalny", the barrack orderly, walked slowly up and down, 
repeating "To work, children, to work" in a monotonous whisper; 
he had to see that all the occupants of the barrack were up and on 
their feet before the kitchens opened. He performed his work gently 
and politely, not like the razyodchyk, but more as befits a man who, 
himself free from work, is forced to send others to it, and whose 
low status of a slaves' servant does not allow him to speak with the 
harshness used by free men and their camp servants when they 
address the prisoners. 

Those few minutes after reveille, while the inhabitants of each 
barrack lay on their bunks without moving, were devoted to our 
peculiar form of prayer. It began invariably with swearing and 
curses, and ended almost as invariably with the sacramental 
formula: "Oh, what a bloody life. . . !" That expression, which I 
heard repeated every day on all sides, was a hideous complaint 
which contained everything that a prisoner knew and could say 
about his living death. In other lands and other conditions, in 
normal prisons, the place of this short cry of despair is taken by a 
real prayer or by the remission of one day of the total sentence, for 
it is only too understandable that a man robbed of everything but 
hope should begin his day by turning his thoughts to hope. Soviet 
prisoners have been deprived even of hope, for not one of them can 
ever know with any certainty when his sentence will come to an end. 
He can remember literally hundreds of cases where sentences have 


WORK 33 

been prolonged by another ten years with, one stroke of a pen at the 
Special Council of the N.K.V.D. in Moscow. Only someone who 
has been in prison can appreciate the whole implication of cruelty 
in the fact that during my year and a half in the camp only a few 
times did I hear prisoners counting aloud the number of years, 
months, days and hours which still remained of their sentences. 
This silence seemed to be a tacit agreement not to tempt providence. 
The less we talked about our sentences, the less hope we cherished 
of ever regaining freedom, the more likely it seemed that "just this 
once" everything would be well Hope contains the terrible danger 
of disappointment. In our silence, rather like the taboo whichforbids 
the men of certain primitive tribes to pronounce the names of 
vengeful deities, humility was combined with a quiet resignation 
and anticipation of the worst. Disappointment was a fatal blow to 
a prisoner who lacked this armour against fate. I remember an old 
railwayman from Kiev, called Ponomarenko, who had spent ten 
years in various Soviet camps, and who alone among us all talked 
of his approaching release with a confidence that dispelled fear, 
excluding all uncertainty. In July 1941, two weeks after the out- 
break of the Russo-German war, he was summoned to the N.K.V.D. 
office beyond the zone on the last day of his sentence to hear that 
it had been prolonged "indefinitely". When we came back from 
work that evening, he was already dead. Dimka told us later that 
he had come back from the Second Section* looking pale, and had 
seemed suddenly aged by the ten years which he had spent in the 
camp. He lay down on his bunk without a word, and to all 
questions would answer only: "My life is finished, it's all over" ; and 
he, an old bolshevik, alternately prayed soundlessly or beat his grey 
head against the planks of the bunk. He died between four and five 
in the afternoon, when Dimka as usual went out for hvoya and hot 
water. I can only guess what was happening in his heart, but one 
thing is certain that besides despair, pain, and helpless anger, he 
felt also regret for his thoughtless faith in hope. In his last moments, 
looking back on his wasted life, he must have reproached himself 
bitterly for provoking fate by his light-hearted confidence. In the 

* The Second Section of the N.K.V.D. was concerned with the quotas of 
prisoners and their distribution among the camps. Like all other camp 
authorities, it was under the ultimate control of the Third Section, which, by 
the extensive use of informers, watched over the political behaviour of the 
prisoners and the loyalty of the free camp officials, and decided all questions 
with even the slightest political aspect. 


barrack I heard more condemnation than sympathy for him. He 
had suffered, yes: but had he not brought it upon himself? Was it 
not playing with fire to talk freely about his release? Did he not 
invoke freedom, instead of putting his faith humbly in the sentences 
of destiny ? He was no inexperienced novice, for he himself, in 1936, 
had seen men who were due for release at four o'clock in the after- 
noon cut the veins of their wrists when, at twelve o'clock, an order 
had come from Moscow abolishing the system of remission of two 
days for every day of stakhanovite work. He had told us this 
himself, laughing and pleased because his own good sense had 
always told him to work only so much that a day should be counted 
as a day. And now he had been cheated of 3,650 days of unfailing, 
honest work. It was considered that he had been deservedly 
punished for breaking the prisoners' code. 

Everything went on as before: Ponomarenko's bunk was taken 
by another prisoner, the place of his faith in justice by the old 
taboo, and the place of his daily sentence-litany by the only words 
which we used to express hopelessness without provoking hope. 

By a quarter to six only those prisoners who had obtained a 
medical dispensation -from work on the previous day were still 
lying on their bunks, while the rest were beginning to dress. 
Prisoners bent over their bare legs, attempting to construct from 
rags, pieces of string or lengths of wire, torn felt boots and scraps 
of car tyres a warm and enduring foot-covering which would last 
for an eleven-hour day of work. Only the specially picked brigades, 
mine among them, engaged in work directly concerned with the 
camp's production plan, were issued with new clothing and 
allowed to exchange it when it was worn out. But about three- 
quarters of all prisoners walked out to work in rags which exposed 
parts of their legs, arms and chests. It was not surprising, then, that 
many of them did not undress at night for fear that their clothing, 
put together with difficulty, would simply disintegrate. For them 
the morning reveille was like a signal in the waiting-room of a 
railway station. They shook the sleep out of themselves, dragged 
themselves off the bunks, moistened their eyes and mouths in the 
corner of the barrack, and walked out to the kitchen. They left the 
zone for work with a surreptitious hope that this time the frost- 
bite on the exposed parts of their bodies would be bad enough to 
merit at least a few days' dispensation from work. 

The zone was still quite dark. Only just before the morning 

WORK 35 

roll-call the sky became pink on the edge of the horizon, melting 
after a while in the steel-blue glare of the snow. It was difficult to 
distinguish faces even at the distance of an extended hand. We all 
walked in the direction of the kitchen, bumping into each other and 
clanging our mess-cans. By the well and round the small hut where 
the hot drinking water was boiled could be heard the jangling of 
buckets, the crunching of frozen snow and the quiet whispers of the 
imprisoned priests, who, like Dimka, usually did the work of barrack 
orderlies, calmly conducting their morning exchange of courtesies. 
The sombre ceiling of the sky closed upon us from above, and the 
still invisible barbed wire separated us from the outer world which 
was beginning to go about its business by the light of electric lamps. 
On the raised platform in front of the kitchen formed three 
queues, epitomising the social divisions of the camp proletariat. 
Before the serving-hatch with the inscription "third cauldron" stood 
the best-dressed and fittest prisoners stakhanovites, whose daily 
production capacity reached or surpassed 125 per cent of the 
prescribed norm; their morning meal consisted of a large spoonful 
of thick boiled barley and a scrap of salted "treska" (a large 
northern fish similar in flavour to the cod) or herring. The second 
cauldron was for prisoners with a daily production capacity of 100 
per cent of the norm a spoonful of barley without the piece offish. 
At the front of this queue stood old men and women from those 
brigades where it was impossible to reckon the work in terms of 
percentages, who were therefore automatically issued with the 
second cauldron. But the most terrible sight was the first cauldron 
queue, a long row of beggars in torn rags, shoes tied with string 
and worn caps with ear-flaps, waiting for their spoonful of the 
thinnest barley. Their faces were shrivelled with pain and dried like 
parchment, their eyes suppurating and distended by hunger, their 
hands convulsively gripping the billy-cans as if their stiff fingers had 
frozen to the tin handles. Dazed with exhaustion and swooning on 
their thin legs, they pushed their way through to the hatch, whined 
plaintively, begging for an extra dribble, and peered greedily into 
the cans of second- and third-cauldron prisoners as they left the 
hatches. In this queue arguments were most frequent, here the 
humble whining changed most frequently into the shrill falsetto of 
anger, envy and hatred. The queue for the first cauldron was 
always the longest in the camp. Apart from the most numerous 
class of prisoners, those who with the best will in the world could 


not attain 100 per cent of the norm because their physical condition 
was too poor, there were many who purposely spared themselves at 
work, convinced that it was better to work little and eat little than 
to work hard and eat almost as little. All the barrack orderlies, and 
a few prisoners from the staff and administration of the camp, also 
belonged to the first cauldron. 

Prisoners who left the zone without an escort, by special passes, 
had their breakfast before six. Besides water-carriers and servants 
employed in the houses of free administrative staff, this group also 
included the technical experts and engineers who had to be at their 
places before the arrival of the brigades. The meal of their special 
"iteerovski" (I.T.R. engineering and technical work) cauldron 
surpassed in quantity and to some extent in quality the rations even 
of stakhanovites on general work. At half-past six all the serving- 
hatches were closed, though they opened again, after the brigades 
had left for work, to feed prisoners with medical dispensations 
from work, the inhabitants of the mortuary, and those working 
inside the zone itself on the second cauldron. 

Very few prisoners had enough strength of will to carry their 
meals from the kitchen all the way back to the barracks. For the 
most part they ate standing up at the bottom of the platform, 
swallowing in two or three hasty gulps all that the cook's ladle had 
poured into the dirty can. Small groups of prisoners began to join 
the black crowd gathering by the guard-house immediately after 
breakfast. The zone was already light, and from the dispersing 
darkness could be made out first the frost-rimed wires, then the 
enormous sheet of snow, extending to the hardly visible line of the 
forest on the horizon. In the village and in the barracks the lights 
were going out and the chimneys were sending dirty yellow clouds 
of smoke into the air. The moon was fading gently, frozen in the 
icy sky like a slice of lemon in a jelly, and the last stars still twinkled. 
The morning "razvod" the brigades' march out to work was 

At a given signal the prisoners drew themselves up into brigades, 
standing in twos. In normal brigades the old were at the front and 
the young at the back, but in brigades whose output did not come 
up to the prescribed norm the order was reversed. This practice 
must be explained more fully. There were very few prisoners who 
believed that it was better to work less and eat less, and in the over- 
whelming majority of cases the cauldron system was successful in 

WORK 37 

obtaining the maximum physical effort from the prisoners for an 
insignificant increase in their rations. A hungry man does not stop 
to think, but is ready to do anything for an extra spoonful of soup. 
The fascination of the norm was not the exclusive privilege of the 
free men who imposed it, but also the dominating instinct of the 
slaves who worked to it. In those brigades where the work was 
done by teams of men working together, the most conscientious 
and fervent foremen were the prisoners themselves, for there the 
norms were reckoned collectively by dividing the total output by 
the number of workers. Any feeling of mutual friendliness was 
completely abolished in favour of a demented race for percentages. 
An unqualified prisoner who found himself assigned to a co- 
ordinated team of experienced workers could not expect to have 
any consideration shown to him; after a short struggle he was 
forced to give up and transfer to a team in which he in his turn 
frequently had to watch over weaker comrades. There was in all 
this something inhuman, mercilessly breaking the only natural bond 
between prisoners their solidarity in face of their persecutors. 
The formation of brigades in the morning brought this system to 
monstrous cruelty. In brigades which failed to come up to the 
norm the pace of the march was set by the youngest prisoners to 
save time, while the older and feebler ones were dragged behind. 
This natural selection resulted in rapid rejuvenation of the brigades 
in question, for the old ones who could not keep up gradually 
disappeared for good. 

The first to leave the zone were the brigades of foresters, who had 
to walk between five and seven kilometres to their work; leaving the 
camp at half-past six, they would arrive at their sector of the forest 
at half-past seven, and finish work at five. The razvodchyk, who 
acted as the master of ceremonies at the morning roll-call, standing 
with a board and a pencil exactly on the border-line between the 
zone and free territory, called each brigade in turn to the gates and 
reported its presence to the officer of the guard. Beyond the gate 
waited with mounted bayonets a detachment of the "Vohra" (the 
labour camp garrisons) in long greatcoats and fur caps. The chief 
officer of the guard formally handed the brigade over to its per- 
manent escorting soldier, who stepped out of his rank, called out 
his name and the number of his brigade, checked the number of 
prisoners and repeated it aloud to the officer, acknowledging the 
receipt of so many men for such and such work. From that 


moment he was responsible for them with his own life, so that a 
moment before marching off he repeated to the prisoners the 
sacred, invariable formula: "Brigade such and such, I am warning 
you: one single step to the right or the left, and you get a bullet 
through the head." Then he gave the signal to move off, and 
lowering his rifle as if for attack, with his finger on the trigger, sent 
the brigadier to the front and himself brought up the rear. After the 
forest brigades went those for the saw-mill, the brigades of joiners 
going to the town, then the digging, the food-centre, the road- 
building, the water-works and the electricity-plant brigades. From 
the gates of the camp black crocodiles of men stooping, shivering 
with cold and dragging their legs dispersed in all directions and 
disappeared on the horizon after a few minutes like scattered lines 
of letters, gathered with one pull of the hand from a white sheet of 

The journey to work was exhausting, but contained some variety 
compared with the work itself. Even prisoners whose brigades 
worked at a distance of less than a mile from the zone found great 
pleasure in passing familiar places, trees, frozen streams, dilapidated 
sheds and wolf-traps, perhaps asserting their own existence by 
observation of the unchanging laws of nature. In some brigades, 
too, the degree of friendliness between the prisoners and their 
guard was so close that, as soon as they were out of sight of the 
guard-house, the "strelok" put his rifle on his shoulder and began to 
chat pleasantly with the last few pairs. This insignificant expression 
of human feelings gave us not so much the pleasure of raising 
ourselves from humiliation and contempt, but rather excitement at 
an infringement of prison rules. Occasionally the guard treated his 
brigade with politeness, and even showed signs of a rudimentary 
guilty conscience towards them. Therefore the days when the guard 
of a particular brigade was changed were among the most memor- 
able for the prisoners, and were eagerly discussed in the barracks. 
Some time had always to pass before a fresh understanding could 
develop between the slaves and their new overseer. It was quite a 
different case if the escorting guard looked upon the prisoners as 
his natural enemies and treated them accordingly; that brigade did 
not miss the slightest opportunity of annoying him and making 
his work difficult. 

The first hours of the day were always the most difficult to bear. 
Our bodies, stiffened rather than rested by sleep on hard bunks, 

WORK 39 

had to struggle against great pain in order to recapture the rhythm 
of work. Besides, there was really nothing to wait for in the morn- 
ing. Only the stakhanovites received a midday meal a spoonful of 
boiled soya-beans and a hundred grammes of bread; this "extra" 
was brought by one of the water-carriers, under the supervision of a 
cook, in a large bucket fixed to sledge runners. Other workers spent 
the midday break sitting round the fire in a position where they 
could not see the stakhanovites' "extra", smoking one common 
cigarette which was passed from hand to hand. 

It was rarely that a prisoner had saved a slice of bread from the 
previous evening's meal. Bread rations were issued daily according 
to the cauldrons: third 700 grammes, second 500 grammes, and 
first- 400 grammes.* Bread apart from the spoonful of boiled 
barley in the mornings and the portion of weak soup in the evenings 
was the camp's basic food. To restrain oneself from gulping all of 
it down immediately after receiving it required a superhuman 
effort of will. Only those prisoners who walked out again to the 
kitchen after their evening meal, and bought additional portions of 
soup from the cooks with the rapidly vanishing items of their pre- 
camp clothing, could bring themselves to put a little bread by for the 

Two hours before their return to the zone the prisoners came to 
life again. The prospect of rest and of momentary satisfaction of 
tormenting hunger had such an effect on us that not only the return, 
but even the anticipation of it, was the day's most important event. 
As in every idealised picture, there was more illusion than reality in 
the expectation. The agony of prison life did not end for us when 
we returned to the barracks, but on the contrary became the agony 
of waiting for death. Yet it contained a mysterious attraction in the 
intimacy of suffering. Lying alone on one's bunk, one was at last 
free free from work, from the company of one's fellow-prisoners, 
free, finally, from time, which dragged so slowly for us. Only in 
prison is it easy to understand that life without any expectation of 
the future becomes meaningless and flooded with despair. We 
feared solitude while waiting for it. It was our only substitute for 
freedom, and in moments of complete relaxation it gave us the 
relief and the almost physical pain of tears. 

The first, instinctive reaction of hopelessness is always the faith 
that in loneliness suffering will become hardened and sublimated as 

* 1 Ib. = approximately 450 grammes. 


in a purgatory fire. Though many long for solitude as their last 
refuge, few are capable of bearing it. The idea of loneliness, as that 
of suicide, is most frequently the only protest which we can make 
when everything else has failed us, and before death has begun to 
hold more attraction than terror for us. It is never more than an 
idea, for despair enlightened by consciousness would be greater 
than the despair of torpidity. A prisoner walking back to the zone 
was like a drowning man who has survived a shipwreck and is 
swimming with a last effort of will towards a desert island. As long 
as he is struggling with the waves and catching gusts of air into lungs 
which are already bursting with pain, but always nearer and 
nearer to the land, his life is still worth living, for he still has hope. 
But there is no torture worse than the sudden realisation that this 
hope itself was only the delusion of unsteady senses. To find 
oneself on a desert island, without the slightest prospect of rescue 
and salvation, after the efforts to survive in the sea that may 
indeed be called suffering. We lived through that every day; every 
day shortly before the return to the zone, the prisoners laughed and 
talked like free men; and every day they would lie down on their 
bunks after work like men choking with despair. 

In the forest brigades, which in the north were the basis of the 
labour camps' production plan, the work was divided among 
several teams of four or five prisoners. The functions of each 
prisoner were constantly varied so that each would in turn perform 
the heavier and the lighter tasks; thus, one felled the pines with a 
thin curved saw, one cleared them of bark and boughs, one burnt 
the cleared branches and bark on the fire (this was a form of rest 
which was taken in turn), and the remaining two sawed the felled 
trunks into logs of a prescribed length, stacking them in piles a 
yard or two in height. Under this system of division of labour the 
most important person at the wood-cutting was the foreman, a 
prisoner who walked about without an escort or a free supervisor, 
who measured the cut wood, and stamped the counted logs with the 
camp seal. His reckonings became the basis on which the brigadier 
calculated the output of each team in his brigade. I can no longer 
remember what the prescribed norm was in the forest, but I 
do know that the Finns, who are deservedly reputed to be the 
world's best woodcutters, considered it to be excessively high even 
for free and well-fed workers. It was impossible for a forest 
brigade to surpass its norm except with the help of what was known 

WORK 41 

as "toufta", a whole system of ingenious cheating. The authority 
of a brigadier among his workers was measured by his talents in this 
direction, which were also a source of income to him in the form of 
bribes from weaker prisoners. Various methods were used ; the logs 
were stacked so that the piles would look full from outside and yet 
be loose inside, with spaces between logs this could be successful 
only when the foreman was himself a prisoner, and for a bribe of 
bread would ignore the hollowness of the piles. If the foreman 
happened to be an incorruptible free official (though even these 
could occasionally be bribed, usually with a civilian suit), we would 
saw off thinly the stamped end of the log and insert this "new" log 
into an uncounted pile, while the shavings were quickly burnt in 
the fire. In any case it is a fact that without the toufta and its 
accompanying bribery, on all sectors of the camp's industry, no 
brigade could ever have reached even a hundred per cent output. 

Forest work was considered to be one of the heaviest forms of 
labour in the camp. The distance from work to the camp was 
usually about three miles; the prisoners worked all day under the 
open sky, up to their waist in snow, drenched to the skin, hungry 
and exhausted. I never came across a prisoner who had worked in 
the forest for more than two years. As a rule they left after a 
year, with incurable disease of the heart, and were transferred to 
brigades engaged at lighter work; from these they soon "retired" 
to the mortuary. Whenever a fresh transport of prisoners arrived 
in Yercevo, the youngest and strongest were always picked to be 
"put through the forest". This selection of slaves was sometimes 
similar even in the details of its decor to the illustrations of books 
about negro slavery, when the chief of the Yercevo camp section, 
Samsonov, honoured the medical examination with his presence, 
and with a smile of satisfaction felt the biceps, shoulders and backs 
of the new arrivals. 

The length of a working day was basically eleven hours in all 
brigades, increased after the outbreak of the Russo-German war to 
twelve. But in the porters' brigade which worked at the food 
supply centre, and in which I spent most of my time in the camp, 
these limits were non-existent the duration of work depended on 
the number of railway-wagons, and the wagons could not be 
delayed overtime, as the camp had to pay the railway executive for 
each additional hour beyond the prescribed time. In practice we 
worked sometimes as long as twenty hours a day, with only short 


breaks for meals. If we returned to the zone after midnight, we 
were not forced to rise with the others, but returned to the food 
supply centre only about eleven in the morning, working again as 
long as was necessary in order that the empty wagons could return 
on time from our siding to Yercevo station. It was thus that by 
overtime alone our output was usually between 150 and 200 per cent 
of the norm. Even so toufta was applied very frequently in our 
brigade as the majority of the porters desired to be maintained on 
the "red list" of the stakhanovites, which gave them the privilege of 
buying a piece of horse-sausage in the camp shop. The toufta at the 
food supply centre consisted of adding, on paper, several yards to 
the distance between the wagon and the warehouse with the 
agreement of the foreman who signed the index figure of production 
for the brigade. The norm of the porters' brigade was calculated on 
the basis of two factors the amount of unloaded goods, and the 
distance between the wagon and the warehouse. The first could not 
be altered, for each wagon carried a list of the amount and contents 
of the freight, but the second left a margin of free numerical 
calculation to the brigadier. 

It is not easy to understand why, under these conditions, ad- 
mission to the porters' brigade at the food supply centre was looked 
upon in the camp as a certain social promotion. It must be re- 
membered that overtime work was the rule rather than the ex- 
ception at the supply centre, where twenty-five of us had to un- 
load food for the 30,000 prisoners in all the camp sections of the 
Kargopol camp, and for the co-operative store outside the camp. 
And yet dozens of prisoners were waiting eagerly to take the place 
of any one of us who would leave. There were two principal reasons 
for this one purely material, the other moral or rather psy- 
chological. Working at the centre, we had many opportunities of 
stealing a piece of salted fish, a little flour, or a few potatoes. We 
also had the right to negotiate with our foremen, and frequently 
even with free officials, on an equal footing, for we were always 
formally asked to work overtime. Our supervisors could, of course, 
have appealed to the camp authorities in the event of our refusal, 
thus substituting coercion for a procedure of good-will, but they 
never had recourse to force before first exhausting every possibility 
of obtaining their object by kindness and persuasion. We ourselves 
took care not to be deprived even of these modest illusions of 
freedom, for every prisoner feels the need to preserve the vestiges of 

WORK 43 

his own free will. Forgetting that the first law of camp life is 
physical self-preservation, we looked upon our freedom to sanctify 
the unlimited exploitation of our labour by a pretence of voluntary 
agreement as a precious privilege. It was like an echo of 
Dostoevsky's "The word convict means nothing else but a man with 
no will of his own, and in spending money he is showing a will of his 
own." We had no money, but we could bargain with the remnants 
of our strength, and we were as lavish with them as Tsarist exiles 
with their kopeks, when it was a question of maintaining the barest 
appearance of our humanity. 

After the return from work every brigadier neatly filled in the 
form of output and carried it to the camp accountants' office; there 
the submitted figures were translated into percentages according to 
special tables and the calculations were sent to the camp ad- 
ministration office. This procedure employed, according to my 
approximate reckoning, about thirty officials for the two thousand 
prisoners of Yercevo alone. The percentage figures were then 
passed to the supply office, where the prisoners were assigned to 
cauldrons on their basis, and to the camp pay office, where the 
prisoners' individual cards were covered with long columns of 
figures, stating their earnings in roubles and kopeks according to the 
tariff of wages established for all labour camps. During my whole 
stay in Yercevo only once on May 1st, 1941 did a camp pay 
officer come to our barrack with statements of our earnings. I 
signed an enormous form, from which I gathered that my earnings 
over the past six months were barely sufficient to cover the costs of 
my stay in the camp ("repairs" to barracks, clothing, food, ad- 
ministrative expenses), leaving me ten roubles the equivalent of 
sixpence in cash. I was glad to be paying my way in the camp, and 
justifying the expense of maintaining guards to escort me to work 
and N.K.V.D. officers to watch carefully whether my remarks in the 
camp could not be punished with an additional sentence. I knew 
many prisoners whose earnings were not as high even as mine, and 
who, on every first of May, were told that they had a deficit on their 
sheets. I have no idea whether this additional payment to the cost 
of our "corrective institution" was paid from their earnings in 
freedom after release, whether they remained after their sentences 
were finished to work off their debt in the camp, or finally whether 
their families were forced to pay in a certain sum as caution money. 

Shortly before ending their work for the day the prisoners took 


their tools back to the shed and sat round the fire in a circle. A row 
of hands, covered with veins and patches of congealed blood, dirty 
and blackened by the work and at the same time whitened by frost- 
bite, was raised over the fire, the eyes gleamed with a diseased spark, 
the shadows of the flames played on faces numb from pain. This 
was the end, the end of yet another day. They felt the weight of 
their hands, the stitch in the lungs from frozen icicles of breath, the 
contraction of the throat, the pangs of an empty stomach under their 
ribs, the aching bones of legs and shoulders. At a signal from the 
escorting guard they left the fire and got up, some of them raising 
themselves with the help of sticks made at work. By six o'clock, 
from all sides of the empty, white plain, the brigades converged on 
the camp, like funeral processions of shadows carrying their own 
bodies across their shoulders. Walking along tortuous paths we 
looked like the legs of some enormous black caterpillar, whose 
head, pierced in the zone by the four blades of the searchlights, 
bared the teeth of gleaming barrack windows at the sky. In the 
deep silence of the evening we could hear only the tread of boots on 
the snow, broken by the whip-lashes of the escort's "Faster! 
faster!" But it was beyond us to walk faster; silently we walked, 
almost pressed against each other, as if, by growing together, we 
could more easily reach the lighted camp gates. Only the last few 
hundred yards, only one more final effort, and then the zone, a 
spoonful of soup, a morsel of bread, a bunk and solitude a 
longed-for and yet how deceptive solitude. 

And yet this was still not the end. The last threetwo one 
hundred yards to the gate required enormous effort: the brigades 
were searched at the guard-house as they arrived. Sometimes, at the 
gate itself, one of the crowd of prisoners would fall to the ground 
like a sack thrown off one's back; we would lift him up by his arms 
so as not to delay the search. If some forbidden object or a stolen 
scrap of food was found on a prisoner, the whole brigade was 
marched aside and in the frost, on the snow, stripped almost naked 
for the search. There were searches which were prolonged with 
sadistic slowness from seven till ten at night. 

Only beyond the gate, in the zone, was it really the end. The 
prisoners stopped for a while before the alphabetical list of the daily 
post, dispersed slowly to their barracks for their mess-cans, and 
moved towards the kitchen. The zone was again dark as in the 
morning, the queues grew and the cans rattled on the lighted 

WORK 45 

platform before the kitchen. We passed each other without a word, 
like the inhabitants of a plague-infested town. And this silence 
would suddenly be broken by a despairing cry: somebody's canful 
of soup was being snatched away from him at the edge of the 


What our work was, or rather what it could be in the hands of 
those who choose to use it as an instrument of torture, is best shown 
by this example of a man who, in the winter of 1941, was murdered 
with work in one of the forest brigades, by a method which was 
completely legal and only slightly infringed the code of the camp. 

A month after my arrival a new transport, containing a hundred 
political prisoners and twenty bytoviks, came to Yercevo. The 
bytoviks remained in Yercevo, and the politicals were transported 
to the other camp sections, with the sole exception of a young, well- 
built prisoner with the blunt face of the fanatic, called Gorcev, who 
was detained in Yercevo and directed to the forest. 

Various strange rumours were current in the camp about 
Gorcev, for he himself, disregarding the prisoners* time-honoured 
custom, never spoke a word about his own past. This fact alone 
was sufficient to arouse the prisoners' hostility, for those who 
guarded closely the secret of their sentence and imprisonment were 
considered either to be too proud to be admitted to the solidarity of 
the prisoners, or else as potential spies and informers. This was not 
his worst offence, for spying and denunciation were looked upon in 
the camp as the most natural thing; we were irritated particularly by 
Gorcev's behaviour. His attitude was that of a man who has 
accidentally slipped into the camp, while keeping a firm foot- 
hold on freedom. Only the technical experts of the I.T.R. cauldron 
were allowed to behave like that, never ordinary prisoners. It was 
whispered that Gorcev had been an N.K.V.D. officer before his 

He himself unconsciously, or else through simple stupidity 
did everything to confirm this suspicion in our minds. Whenever 
he opened his mouth as the prisoners sat round the fire in the forest, 
it was to pronounce short, violent harangues against "the enemies of 
the people" imprisoned in the camps, defending the action of the 
Party and the Government in placing them out of harm's way. His 
duU face, with the cunning eyes of a knave and a large scar on the 


right cheek, lit up with an instinctive smile of humility and sub- 
servience whenever he pronounced the words of that magic formula 
"the Party and the Government". Once he unwarily revealed 
that he found himself in the camp only "through error", and that he 
would soon return to his former "position of responsibility". The 
other prisoners began to treat him with open and undisguised 

I made several attempts to gain his confidence, not through 
sympathy but simply from curiosity. I was fascinated by the 
opportunity of talking to a man who, imprisoned in a labour camp, 
observed it through the eyes of a free communist. But Gorcev 
avoided me as he did the others, snubbed me whenever I asked a 
question, and even provocative jeers produced no reaction from 
Him. Only once did I manage to engage him in conversation, and 
we discussed capitalist encirclement. This discussion convinced me 
of the error of the popular belief that the young generation of 
Soviet communists is only a band of condottieri, who obey their 
leader but are ready to abandon him at the first good opportunity. 
For hundreds of thousands of Gorcevs bolshevism is the only 
religion and the only possible attitude to the world, for it has been 
thoroughly instilled into them during childhood and youth. Older 
men like Zinoviev, Kamenev or Bukharin may have looked upon 
their "ideological deviation" as a great personal defeat which 
suddenly robbed their lives of meaning, they may have suffered and 
considered themselves to have been betrayed, they may even have 
broken down completely but despite everything they must still 
have retained enough of their critical faculty to enable them to 
consider what was being done to them and around them with 
historical detachment in their sober moments. But for the Gorcevs 
the breakdown of their faith in communism, the only faith which 
has directed their lives, would mean the loss of the five basic senses, 
which recognise, define and appraise the surrounding reality. Even 
imprisonment cannot goad them into breaking their priestly vows, 
for they treat it as temporary isolation for a breach of monastic 
discipline, and wait for the day of release with even greater 
acquiescence and humility in their hearts. The fact that their 
period of seclusion and meditation has to be spent in hell does 
not prove anything for them, or rather it proves only that hell 
really does exist, and woe to those who suffer expulsion from 
paradise for sins against the doctrines of the Almighty. 

WORK 47 

One evening the veil concealing Gorcev's past was lifted slightly. 
He had quarrelled over some trifle with a group of Mongol 
nacmeny in the corner of the barrack, and fell into a rage such as 
we had never seen in him before. He seized one of the old Uzbeks 
by the collar of his robe and, shaking him furiously, hissed through 
clenched teeth: "I used to shoot you Asiatic bastards by the 
dozen like sparrows off a branch!" The Uzbek, sitting on bis 
folded legs on a lower bunk, rattled in his throat in his own language, 
and his face changed in a split second so as to become unrecognis- 
able. His eyes darted steel at the attacker from under his lowered 
eyelids, his upper lip trembled nervously under the thin drooping 
moustache, revealing a row of white teeth. Suddenly, with a 
lightning thrust, he knocked Gorcev's hands into the air, and 
moving his body slightly forward, spat with all his force in the 
other's face. Gorcev tried to throw himself on the old man, but he 
was held still by the iron grip of two young Mongols who had 
jumped down from an upper bunk and caught Ms arms. We 
watched this scene in silence without moving from our places. 
So it seemed that he had been employed in suppressing the great 
native insurrection of Central Asia; and we knew that this task was 
entrusted only to those in the confidence of the authorities, the elite 
of the party and the N.K.V.D. Gorcev went to the Third Section 
with a complaint, but the old Uzbek was not even summoned for 
questioning beyond the zone. Perhaps because he had un- 
intentionally confirmed the existence of the rebellion of which it was 
forbidden to speak throughout Russia, or perhaps because, despite 
appearances, he had no powerful protector beyond the zone, his old 
connections could not help him, and he was defenceless before the 
approaching blow. At any rate, his brigade took this failure as a 
good sign. All they wanted was that the Third Section should 
refrain from intervention in this matter, that it should throw at 
least one of its own people to the wolves, giving him up to the 
prisoners' revenge. 

Some time about Christmas a transport from Krouglitza to the 
Pechora camps passed through Yercevo. The prisoners spent 
three days in the peresylny barrack, walking round our barracks 
in the evenings and looking for friends. It was one of these who 
stopped suddenly and went pale as he passed Gorcev's bunk. 

"You here?" he whispered. 

Gorcev raised his head, blenched, and backed against the wall. 


"Here?" repeated the new arrival, approaching him slowly. 
Then suddenly he jumped at Gorcev's throat, threw him down on 
his back across the bunk, and pressing his right shoulder into 
Gorcev's chest, started hammering his head furiously against the 

"So you fell too, did you?" he shouted, punctuating almost every 
word with a thud from Gorcev's head. "You fell at last, did you? 
You could break fingers in doors, push needles under finger- 
nails, beat our faces and kick us in the balls and the stomach . . . 
couldn't you . . . couldn't you? My fingers have grown again 
. . , they'll choke you yet ... they'll choke you . . ." 

Although younger and apparently stronger than his attacker, 
Gorcev behaved as if he was paralysed and did not attempt to 
defend himself. Only after a few moments did he seem to come to 
life, and he kicked the other man with his bent knee and fell with 
him to the floor. Supporting himself on the nearest bench, his face 
twisted with fear, he got up and started to run towards the barrack 
door. But there he found a barrier of Uzbeks who had left their 
corner to prevent his escape. He turned back his brigade was 
waiting for him, looking at him with hostility. The attacker now 
walked towards him, holding an iron bar which someone on an 
upper bunk had thrust into his hand. The circle began to close 
round Gorcev. He opened Ms mouth to shout, but at that very 
instant one of the nacmeny hit his head with the wooden cover of a 
bucket, and he fell to the floor, dripping with blood. With the 
remnants of his strength he raised himself on his knees, looked at 
the slowly advancing prisoners and shrieked horribly: "They'll kill 
me! Guard! They'll kill me!" 

In the deep silence, Dimka crawled off his bunk, limped over to 
the barrack door and bolted it. A jerkin, thrown from an upper 
bunk, fell on Gorcev and immediately the furious blows of the iron 
bar rained on his head. He threw the jerkin off and, stumbling like a 
drunkard, rushed towards his own brigade. There he was met by an 
extended fist, and he bounced off it like a rubber ball, vomiting 
blood, his legs giving way. He was passed from hand to hand, until 
he slid to the floor quite helpless, instinctively folding his hands 
round his head and protecting his stomach with drawn-up knees. 
He remained crouching like that, crumpled and dripping blood like 
a wet rag. Several prisoners came up to him and nudged him with 
their boots, but he made no movement. 

WORK 49 

"Is he still alive?" asked the one who had unmasked him. 
"Examining judge from the Kharkov prison, brothers. He used to 
beat good men so that their own mothers wouldn't know them. 
What a bastard, oh! what a bastard . . ." he lamented. 

Dimka came up with a pailful of hvoya and threw it over 
Gorcev's head. He stirred, sighed deeply, and stiffened again. 

"He's alive," said the forester-brigadier, "but he won't live 

The next morning Gorcev washed the dry, congealed blood off 
his face and crawled to the medical hut, where he was given one 
day's dispensation from work. He went again beyond the zone, 
with another complaint to the Third Section, and returned empty- 
handed. It was now clear to us that the N.K.V.D. was giving up to 
the prisoners one of its own former men. A strange game, in which 
the persecutors entered upon a silent gentleman's agreement with 
their victims, was played out in the camp. 

After the discovery of his past Gorcev was given the hardest 
work in the forest brigade: the sawing of pines with the "little bow". 
For a man unaccustomed to physical labour, and to forestry in 
particular, this work means certain death unless he is relieved at 
least once a day and given a rest at burning cleared branches. But 
Gorcev was never relieved, and he sawed eleven hours a day, 
frequently falling from exhaustion, catching at the air like a 
drowning man, spitting blood and rubbing his fever-ridden face 
with snow. Whenever he rebelled and threw the saw aside with a 
gesture of desperate bravado, the brigadier came up to him and said 
quietly: "Back to work, Gorcev, or we'll finish you off in the 
barrack," and back to work he would go. The prisoners watched 
his agonies with pleasure and satisfaction. They could indeed 
have finished him off in the course of one evening, now that they 
had their sanction from above, but they would have prolonged his 
death into infinity to make him suffer the agonies to which he had 
once condemned thousands. 

Gorcev tried to fight back, although he must have known that it 
was as hopeless as the resistance of his victims had once been at the 
interrogations. He went to the doctor for a further dispensation, 
but old Matvei Kirylovich refused to put him on the sick list. Once 
he refused to march out to work, and was sent to solitary confine- 
ment on water alone for forty-eight hours, then driven out to work 
on the third day. The understanding was working well. Gorcev 


crawled out every day at the end of the brigade, he walked about 
dirty and half-conscious, he was feverish, moaned terribly, spat 
blood and cried like a baby at night, and begged for mercy in the 
daytime. He received the stakhanovite third cauldron, so that he 
would not die immediately, for though his work did not entitle him 
even to the first cauldron, yet the other prisoners did not stint their 
own percentages to fatten up their victim. Finally, towards the end 
of January, after a month had gone by, he lost consciousness at 
work. The prisoners were worried that this time they could not 
avoid sending him to the hospital. It was agreed that the water- 
carrier who drove out to the forest every day with the stakhanovites' 
extra portion, and who was friendly with the forest brigades, should 
take him back on the sledge after the day's work. In the evening the 
brigade marched slowly off towards home, and several hundred 
yards behind crawled the sledge with Gorcev's unconscious body. 
He never reached the zone again, for at the guard-house it was f oun d 
that the sledge was empty. The water-carrier explained that he had 
sat in the front of the sledge the whole time, and probably had not 
heard the fall of the body in the soft snow, piled up on either side of 
the track. It was not until nine after the guard had eaten his 
supper that an expedition with a lighted torch set out to find the 
lost man. Before midnight, through the windows of our barrack, 
we saw a wavering point of light on the road from the forest, but the 
sledge, instead of coming straight to the zone, turned off in the 
direction of the town. Gorcev had been found in a snowdrift two 
yards deep which was covering one of the frozen streams his legs 
hanging out of the sledge, must of course have caught in the rail of 
the wooden bridge. The body, frozen like an icicle, was taken 
straight to Yercevo mortuary. 

Long after his death, the prisoners still cherished their memories 
of this revenge. One of my friends among the technical experts, 
when I had in confidence told him the background of this accident 
at the forest clearing, laughed bitterly and said : "Well, at last even 
we can feel that the revolution has reversed the old order of things. 
Once they used to throw slaves to the lions, now it is the lions who 
are thrown to the slaves." 


An additional hindrance at work was night-blindness, an illness 
which sooner or later afflicts the majority of prisoners in the labour 

WORK 51 

camps of the north as a result of bad feeding, and lack of fats in 

A man with night-blindness stops seeing only at dusk, and must 
therefore accustom himself anew to his disablement every evening. 
This is probably responsible for his constant irritation and nervous- 
ness, his panicky fear of night and darkness. In the forest brigades, 
which worked only in the daytime, but at a distance of several 
miles from the camp, already at about three o'clock in the afternoon, 
when the dusk only just drew a faint veil over the pale-blue enamel 
of the sky, the night-blind began to moan at the escorting guard: 
"Back to the zone, to the zone, or we'll never get there." This was 
repeated every day with unfailing regularity, and always with the 
same result: the brigades left the forest at five and reached the camp 
after an hour's march through snowdrifts and hollows, at six, when 
it was already quite dark. 

The sight of the night-blind, walking slowly through the zone in 
the early mornings and evenings, their hands fluttering in front of 
them, was as normal in the zone as that of the water-carriers who, 
bowed under the weight of their wooden yokes, were walking from 
all directions, crunching the snow blown on to the paths during the 
night, and converging on the well in a black, sharply silhouetted 
group. At those moments of the day the camp reminded me of a 
huge aquarium, filled to the brim with black water and trembling 
with the shadows of deep-sea fishes. 

The night-blind were naturally never assigned to work which 
sometimes lasted far into the night. They were never found in the 
porters' brigade, even though only in that brigade, with a possibility 
of stealing a rare piece of pork fat, could they have any chance of 
being cured it was in its way a perfect vicious circle: with us they 
could have been cured of night-blindness, but they never came to us 
because they suffered from night-blindness. 

I remember, though, that once a new worker walked out to work 
with my brigade, a small, silent man with a severe face and red- 
rimmed eyes. He was serving a ten-year sentence for a ludicrous 
misdemeanour. Once, as a high official in one of the people's 
commissariats, he had had a few drinks with a friend in his office, 
and made a wager that with one revolver shot he could hit Stalin, 
whose picture was as usual hanging on the wall, "right in the eye". 
He won the bet, but it cost him his life when, a few months later, 
after he had forgotten all about the incident, he happened to quarrel 


with the friend. The next day he found two officers of the N.K. V.D. 
waiting for him in the office, where they examined the portrait and 
immediately drew up an indictment. He was sentenced by the 
N.K.V.D. Special Council. He had already served seven years, 
and always providing that his sentence was not prolonged, he still 
had the worst three years before him. He was assigned to our 
brigade after much pleading, in order to "improve his health a 
little", as he told us, making a wide circle in the air with his hand. 

Divided into teams of seven, we were that day unloading three 
enormous railway trucks of flour. We were working like men 
possessed, for we had been told that we would return to the zone as 
soon as the work was finished. The new prisoner worked well 
enough to begin with, but as soon as it began to get dark, he 
slackened speed, began to miss his turns with the sacks, dropped 
them inside the wagon on purpose and spent a long time sewing 
them up again, and kept on going aside more and more frequently. 
Fortunately, our team contained only one urka, and the politicals 
assumed complete indifference. "The old one can't keep it up," the 
Finn Rusto Karinen said to me with his strange accent. 

When it was almost dark, the new man reported an urgent need 
to the guard, and with a slow, wavering step, putting his legs 
carefully before him like an acrobat on a tight rope, he went to the 
latrine. He stayed there for a long time, so long that the urka Ivan, 
with the muttered approval of the two Germans, appealed to the 
whole team, reminding us that we were working together, and that 
the percentages were calculated on average output. Then the new 
one's face, pale as paper, loomed up beside me by the wagon, and I 
noticed that he was trembling all over. 

"What's the matter with you?" I asked, stopping for a moment. 

"Nothing," he replied, and I noticed that his hand was groping 
in the air before him looking for me, even though against the 
surrounding whiteness of the snow everything could be clearly seen 
within a radius of five yards. "Nothing," he repeated, "I feel a bit 
weak, that's all." 

"Go and take a sack, or they'll drive you out of here!" I shouted 
at him, and ran back to the wagon. And a moment later I saw him 
climbing up on the loading plank which stretched between the 
train and the warehouse. He walked slowly, but surely enough, 
like a pedigree horse with bound fetlocks. He stayed in the wagon a 
long time, and again we became impatient and irritated. The two 

WORK 53 

prisoners who were inside the wagon handing the sacks out later 
told us that he had asked them to place the sack on his shoulder, 
with a short, trembling "for pity's sake". Finally he appeared in 
the door of the wagon and a moment searched for the gangway with 
his outstretched foot. When his leg found it, he walked halfway 
across in a few long steps and suddenly stopped. Then he raised his 
right leg into the air and waved it several times in mid-air like a 
ballerina, but every time it landed again in empty space the plank 
was very narrow and he put it down again and froze in ex- 
pectation. It was all obscurely funny and did not arouse our sym- 
pathy. Only later we understood that we had been watching a 
grotesque dance of death. But at the time Karinen only laughed 
shortly, and Ivan shouted angrily: "Hey, you, Stalin's murderer, 
what sort of a circus do you think this is?" 

Then we heard a strange sound, something between a sigh and a 
sob, and Stalin's murderer turned slowly round on his heels in the 
direction of the wagon he had evidently decided to go back. 

"Have you gone mad?" I shouted at him. "Wait, I'll help you!" 
But it was already too late, for he suddenly straightened himself, 
jerked his body, tried for a moment to regain his balance on the 
plank, and then fell with the sack on the snow-covered rails. 

We all ran from the platform and surrounded him in a closed 
circle. He brushed the flour off his jerkin and wiped his bleeding 
forehead. "Night-blindness," he explained briefly, and added: "I 
thought I'd got over it." 

Later I watched him running about with sacks under the plank, 
bending over the snow as he carefully scraped the flour out of it and 
gathered it together with both hands; he looked as if he had been 
exiled from heaven into the depths of hell. I believe that he was 
crying quietly. Perhaps he was only gathering up a handful of flour 
for himself, and hiding it in his clothes, as if he was willing to risk 
everything now. I have no idea how he had succeeded in concealing 
his night-blindness and how he imagined that he would "get over 
it". Our brigadier led him back to the zone after work. When they 
searched us at the guard-house, his pockets were empty and there 
was nothing in his handkerchief. The next morning he went to the 
forest with a penal brigade. . . . For a man who had survived 
seven years in a labour camp, the forest was a slow, lingering 

He died of exhaustion a few months later. When I met him, a few 


days before his death, he had stopped washing a long time before, 
his face had the appearance of a wrinkled lemon, but underneath 
his pus-encrusted eyelashes the fever-consumed eyes, which hunger 
was beginning to cover with a film of madness, still gleamed 
defiantly at the world. It did not need an experienced prisoner to 
tell that only a few days separated him from complete madness, 
and now the last remnants of his human dignity were burning out 
within him. He stood, with an empty can in his hand, leaning 
against the balustrade on the kitchen platform, and I bumped into 
him just at the moment when the cook was pushing my canful of 
soup through his serving-hatch. He smelt so abominably that I 
instinctively moved away; he had probably lost all control over the 
simplest mechanisms of his body, and slept without undressing, 
weak and feverish, surrounded by the shell of his dried excrement. 
He did not recognise me, but looking in front of him only whined: 
"Give me some soup." And then, as if justifying this audacious 
request, he added: "Even the dregs." 

I poured all I had into his can and watched him, holding my 
breath. With trembling hands he brought the can to his mouth, and 
burning his lips gulped down the hot fluid, while a rattling noise 
came from his throat. Two thin streams of soup trickled from the 
corners of his mouth and froze almost instantly. When he had 
finished he went up to the kitchen window, as if I was not there at 
all, and flattened his stubbly face against the window. On the other 
side of the window, leaning against a steaming cauldron of soup, 
stood the Leningrad thief Fyedka (political prisoners were usually 
not allowed to work in the kitchens) laughing at him. "There aren't 
any extras for counter-revolutionists!" he shouted. 

I stayed a moment looking at those two faces divided by the filmy 
glass. "Stalin's murderer" was looking at the cauldron of soup 
with a stare which contained all the mortal, exhausted powers of his 
mind and body. His face expressed an inhuman effort to remember 
something, to understand. His emaciated, angular features 
attempted in vain to pierce the glass barrier. His weakening, broken 
breath steamed on the tile of ice, like an enormous winking eye. 
Suddenly he drew back his right hand, as if for a blow: I caught it 
in mid-air. 

"Come," I said, "this won't get you anywhere. I'll take you back 
to your barrack." 

He did not attempt to escape me, but walked obediently, stooping 

WORK 55 

and crumpled. Again, as on the loading plank, he half-sobbed, half- 

"Robbers," he finally brought out, "robbers, robbers ..." 

"Who?" I asked thoughtlessly. 

"You, you, all of you here," he cried in a heart-rending voice, and 
freeing himself from my grasp, started to run. He looked like a 
huge sewer rat covered with slime, caught suddenly in a beam of 
light. He turned round several times on one spot as if there was no 
escape from it, then suddenly stopped, facing me. 

"I killed Stalin!" His voice changed into the throaty whine of the 
madman. "I shot him like a dog . . . like a dog . . ." He 
laughed with bitter triumph. 

He was too weak to understand everything. But he was un- 
fortunately still strong enough to understand that slow, choking 
death was approaching. Before he died, like a last sacrament he 
wanted to take upon himself the crime that he had not committed. 
Defending himself against an unknown future, struggling in the 
bonds of the present, he acknowledged the past which had been 
thrust upon him. And perhaps, a few moments before his death, 
he had saved his belief in the reality and value of his own extin- 
guished existence. 


ALL fresh transports of prisoners arrived first at Yercevo, which 
was the starting-point of the route to all other sections of the 
Kargopol camp. Prisoners who were not fortunate enough to be 
allowed to stay in Yercevo always spent several nights waiting 
for their moves to other sections in a small transit barrack, where 
they did not receive water or hvoya, situated near the guard-house, 
and known as the peresylny. In the evenings, if I was quite 
certain that my brigade would not be called out to the food supply 
centre in the middle of the night, I would often visit the pere- 
sylny. Of the prisoners there the greatest number was always 
destined for the small penal camp of the Second Alexeyevka, which 
seemed literally to swallow up endless numbers of prisoners who 
never returned. Only once, after the general amnesty of Poles which 
followed the Russo-Polish pact of 1941, 1 met in the transit bar- 
rack a prisoner who was returning to freedom from the Second 
Alexeyevka through Yercevo. This was Andrzej K., a friendly 
Trotskyist worker from Warsaw, whom I had already met in the 
Grodno prison where I was first taken after my arrest. From what 
he very unwillingly told me, I gathered that prisoners in the Second 
Alexeyevka are used only for forest work, and that the conditions 
there are extremely bad compared with those of Yercevo. The 
Alexeyevka, K. told me, was a camp isolated in the heart of the 
Archangel forest, far from any human settlements and about twenty 
miles from the railway line, though connected with Yercevo by the 
internal branch line which kept up its food supply. It was under the 
absolute control of the degenerate camp commander, an N.K.V.D. 
officer, and his confidential staff. The prisoners in this penal camp 
lived in ramshackle barracks with leaking roofs, received only the 
second cauldron, were issued with worn-out and torn clothing, 
worked in the forest thirteen instead of twelve hours a day, often 
waited as long as two or three months for the ceremonious pro- 
clamation of a free day in the camp and, since there was no proper 
hospital accommodation, were moved straight into the mortuary 
at any sign of illness. Only in July and August, when the endless 



northern winter gives place to a short but hot summer, the marshy 
forest clearings offered to the wretched scurvy-ridden prisoners a 
rich crop of berries, small mushrooms, and the bitter, red fruit of 
the sorb tree. Then a spark of life gleamed through the sticky 
yellow matter which surrounded their inflamed eyes, and the 
grimy, dirt-encrusted faces were raised up towards the sun with 
gratitude and fresh hope. The official name of "penal camp" which 
was given to the Alexeyevka was apparently no more than a 
courtesy title ; in reality the camp was like a wide net which swallows 
up an entire school of sprats in this case foreign prisoners, who 
could hardly have had time to commit an offence against dis- 
cipline which would merit removal to the penal camp during the 
few days they spent in the transit barrack at Yercevo before they 
were sent to the Alexeyevka. Among them was the "lumpen- 
proletariat" of the Warsaw "ghetto", who had made their escape 
from the hell of Nazi occupation, across the River Bug, to the 
paradise of the Soviet Union. These Jewish journeymen, tailors and 
carters died like flies in the Alexeyevka. K. told me that he fre- 
quently saw them rooting in the rubbish heaps for rotten cabbage 
leaves and potato peelings. In this penal camp mutinies were 
constantly breaking out among the prisoners. They were suppressed 
without bloodshed the camp command merely stopped the issue 
of rations for several days, and some time later thin skeletons, 
barely covered with skin yellow as the parchment of old holy books, 
their skulls unblemished by the bullets of the victorious revolution, 
were removed beyond the camp zone. After a taste of life at 
Yercevo, K., who despite his Trotskyism retained an instinctive 
habit of looking on "the bright side" of every thing in Soviet Russia, 
decided that the farther away from Moscow, the worse the con- 
ditions become in other words, that the intention is good, but 
badly carried out. 

The wooden path which led to the transit barrack ended in 
several steps down to the door, which were cut in the snow. The 
hut itself was dark, dirty, its roof lower than other barracks, so 
that on the upper bunks one could only talk lying down, or sitting 
bent double, with one's back curved against the ceiling. Large 
vertical beams supported the roof, and framed the closely-packed 
shelves of bunks round the walls. Nails had been knocked into 
the beams, and water dripped on to the floor from the wet boots 
which were hung there. The curved stove-pipe was covered with 


steaming, sweaty rags which the prisoners wrapped round their feet. 
It was so dark that one could see nothing as one came in, and only 
when the eyes had become accustomed to the dim light of one small 
bulb on the opposite wall could one make out two rows of bare 
feet protruding from the grey, shapeless bundles of rags huddled on 
the bunks, and three or four shadows bent over the stove, their 
fingers spread out above the hot metal. The first visitor to the 
transit barrack, arriving before evening, would break its habitual 
silence with a nudge at the nearest pair of bare feet and the four 
customary questions: Who are you? Where do you come from? 
Where are you going? Why are you here? Occasionally, after such 
an attempt at conversation, a feverish face with demented eyes 
emerged from its pile of rags, threw out a furious "pashol von get 
away", and burrowed down again into its stinking litter. But 
usually several attempts were enough to rouse the grey figures on 
the bunks, who raised themselves up, ready for conversation and 
barter. By evening the transit barrack was full of people. Local 
prisoners leaned against the beams and exchanged stories, obser- 
vations and overheard news, and bartered bread for tobacco, with 
the transit prisoners, who, anxious for the safety of their few 
belongings, seldom left the bunks. The atmosphere of the pere- 
sylny barrack pleased me; by a stretch of the imagination it could 
be made to appear as a cross between a hostel for tramps, setting 
out on a quest for the golden fleece, and a normal pre-war European 
cafe. Here it was possible to make new friends, receive news from 
other camps and prisons, buy a little tobacco, complain of one's 
hard fate, and even, since in this temporary stopping-place there 
was little danger of denunciation, grumble a little about Stalin and 
his praetorian guard. Only after the war I learnt with sorrow, but 
also with a secret satisfaction, that even in this respect the cafes of 
Europe had become for millions of people exactly what the transit 
barrack in Yercevo became for me. Crowds of refugees on the 
move took the place of a handful of habitues, until the cafes came 
to resemble the small wooden boxes which in my native countryside 
we nailed to trees to rest and house the flocks of chattering birds on 
their flight to a warmer country, rather than the Kaffenhausen of 
Vienna or the "cafes-chantants" of Paris. 

The transit barrack also fulfilled the function of an Institute for 
Research into Political Tendencies, which, basing its investigations 
on the character of each fresh wave of prisoners, made it possible to 


deduce from it current indications of the price of slave labour, and 
the extent of ideological deviations in politics. Thus I learnt from 
the stories of my companions in the camp in 1939 the barrack 
housed the remnants of those caught in the Great Purges, now 
imprisoned chaotically and without any apparent reason. 1940 saw 
the arrival of regular contingents of Poles, Western Ukrainians, 
White Russians and Jews from Eastern Poland, as well as Baits 
from the north and inhabitants of Sub-Carpathian Ukraine. In 
1941 came the first convoys of Finns and detachments of Red 
Army soldiers who had been captured on the Finnish front; these 
soldiers had marched under a decorated triumphal arch in Lenin- 
grad, welcomed by streamers with the legend "The Fatherland 
greets its heroes", and to the strains of the Budyenny March had 
been led straight to a railway siding beyond the town where sealed 
cattle trucks were waiting to take them to the camps. In the first 
months after the outbreak of the Russo-German war in 1941 the 
transit barrack was full of completely russified Germans from the 
German settlements on the Volga, and bewildered groups of 
Ukrainians and White Russians, fleeing into Russia from their 
native villages as the front rapidly moved forward. I remember the 
nicknames which were given to some of these victims of the war in 
the "technical" barrack. The Poles were called "anti-Nazi fascists", 
the Red Army men "heroes of the Finnish front", and the 
Ukrainians and White Russians who were flying before the Germans 
became known as "partisans of the war for the Fatherland". 

In February 1941 I met in a transit barrack three Germans who 
stood out from the rest of its inmates by a certain instinctive 
haughtiness of gesture and fairly decent European clothing. Also 
between them they possessed something like a rudimentary tourist 
outfit. Otto, a short, stout, dark man with a broad face and small 
piercing eyes, always wore a black beret perched on the top of his 
head; Hans, tall, broad-shouldered and fair, kept a sports scarf 
perpetually tied round his neck ; while Stefan, a thin young man with 
a long, intelligent face, would not be parted from his studded ski 
boots. At first sight they might have passed for three poor in- 
tellectuals in a hostel somewhere high in the mountains, and I was 
astonished when I learnt that only Stefan, the youngest, had been a 
student, at Hamburg, while the other two had both worked in 
factories at Diisseldorf. We started talking in Russian (all three 
spoke, with difficulty, a stiff and horribly unmusical Russian, mixed 


with a good deal of Ukrainian) but after a few minutes we changed 
to German, and I climbed up to their bunk, where we could talk 
undisturbed by the noise of the black-market deals which were 
flourishing below us in the barrack. 

The three Germans had all belonged to the German Communist 
Party before the Nazi Putsch, but even though Hans and Otto had 
worked in the same town, none of them had known each other then. 
After the Reichstag Fire trial, when the Party, corroded by the 
activities of agents-provocateurs, was falling to pieces before the 
eyes of millions of its members, the three of them were sent abroad; 
the object of their escape could only be to reach the adopted 
country of Dimitrov, which was the adopted country of all com- 
munists. Hans travelled through Denmark, Sweden and Finland, 
Stefan and Otto through Paris, Italy and the Balkans. They 
marvelled at the efficiency of European communist organisations, 
which passed them without difficulty across frontiers from country 
to country, and during the long hours of the night, always at some 
new stopping place, they talked with other comrades they met 
during the journey of the fatherland of the world's proletariat, as 
they remembered it from illustrated party propaganda and from 
the stories of envoys who had returned from Russia. During the 
first year of terror in Germany, the "Sunday schools" which the 
party organised for its members were usually held in the countryside 
beyond the towns. Thus everything connected with Russia they 
associated in their minds with the ripe beauty of forests, fields and 
rivers, with the effortless abundance of orchards and the slow 
floating majesty of spring clouds, with that pleasant exhaustion 
which overcame the whole body as, dragging their feet, they 
returned to the town from their excursion to the edge of the distant 

Otto and Hans met in 1936 in a Kharkov factory; Stefan after 
arriving in Russia attempted to study in Kiev. Their first im- 
pressions hardly corresponded with the ideal picture which they had 
formed at their Sunday gatherings, but many disappointments 
could then still be blamed on the difficulties of acclimatisation in a 
foreign country, and on the everlasting, mythical capitalist en- 
circlement. Otto and Hans worked hard, earned well, and lived 
comfortably, and in the evenings, when they knew enough of the 
language, they delighted in listening to the well-informed lectures, 
full of political propaganda, which were held in the factory reading- 


room. But their first attempts to take part in the "free discussion" 
which followed each of these lectures cooled their ardour, and after 
a time Otto would often slip away for beer and billiards straight 
after work, while Hans began going out with a young Ukrainian 
woman who worked in the factory. Both were struck by the lies 
which were told during these discussions about the standard of 
living in the West. When Hans once tried to explain to the meeting 
that "capitalist slavery in the West is based on something quite 
different", he was silenced by the lecturer's sharp question: "Per- 
haps, comrade, you wish to return where you came from, or to 
think everything over again from the beginning?" Hans did not 
then know what it meant to "think everything over again from the 
beginning", though it sounded oddly like a threat, but he had no 
wish to "return where he came from". So from that evening he 
listened in silence, only looking across the room at the Ukrainian 
girl, who once, when saying good-bye to him, had stood on her toes 
and whispered in his ear: "You mustn't argue when members of the 
government are lecturing." Otto's usual place at the lectures 
remained empty. Towards the middle of 1936 Hans married the 
girl, left the room which he had shared with Otto, and went to live 
with his wife's family. At his friend's wedding, after several elderly 
guests had proposed the couple's health, Otto, already drunk, 
lifted his glass of vodka into the air, and spreading his short legs 
apart like a puffing bull, shouted loudly: "The Invincible Soviet 
Union is dreck nothing but shit !" The Russian company evidently 
took "dreck" to be the German equivalent of "hurra", for clinking 
their glasses they nodded and murmured "right, right," but Hans 
pushed Otto out of the door and quickly took him home. Stefan at 
this time was still in Kiev, not studying as he had not yet mastered 
the language, but already an honorary member of the students' 
committee and a valuable speaker at their international meetings. 

Then came the memorable year 1937. The Great Purge hung in 
the air like an approaching storm, but so far was only heralding its 
arrival by flashes of lightning and roars of thunder from beyond 
the seven mountains and the seven rivers. It was hard to believe the 
strange rumours, contradictory reports, and mysterious letters from 
Moscow and Leningrad. But the swollen wave of arrests and 
persecution finally broke through the Russian flood-gates and 
thundered into the Ukraine, sweeping away whomever it came upon, 
like a flood which carries with it roofs, beams, window-frames, 


furniture and hayricks. . . . Then people would come into offices, 
factories, schools and homes with the same question on all lips: 
"Whom will they take today?" But soon the flood was under 
control, and the swollen river flowed only through artificial 
channels. The foreigners were the first to go. Otto was arrested in 
his factory, Stefan at the University. Hans was taken from his 
home, without time to say good-bye to his terrified wife and child. 
He had heard nothing of them since, and received no answer to the 
letters which he wrote. 

Their hearings were monotonous, turning during whole months 
on the accusation of espionage. Hans and Stefan were beaten only a 
few times and comparatively mildly, but Otto suffered for his 
drunken "dreck" : his front teeth were knocked out, and his stomach 
and intestines never recovered from the repeated kickings. In the 
first months of 1939, five hundred and seventy German communists 
were placed together in a separate wing of one of the Moscow 
prisons (I can no longer remember whether Hans mentioned the 
Lubyanka or the Butyrki prison) and there, in a common cell, 
Hans and Otto found and befriended the terrified, wretched 

It must have been toward the middle of September, for every day 
the delighted warder brought them fresh news of the victorious 
march of the German Army across Poland, that one of the prisoners 
found in the latrine a scrap of newspaper containing the text of the 
Russo-German pact. The news spread in the prison and a decision 
was immediately made from the morning of the next day all 
prisoners were to go on hunger-strike demanding that the German 
Ambassador, the representative of their now friendly country, 
should visit them in prison and arrange for their repatriation. The 
Russians ignored it for a week, but before the hunger-strike was 
over representatives of the prisoners, one from each cell, were 
called out to meet a German official sent there by Count Schulen- 
burg, the German Ambassador. The prisoners made only one 
condition,'that, after repatriation, they should not be punished for 
their communism or for their illegal escape from Germany. 
Otherwise they were quite indifferent to their fate, they were even 
willing to be taken into the Wehrmacht immediately after crossing 
the frontier. The hunger-strike was joined by German Jews, as 
well as a few pure Germans who would rather have stayed in a 
Russian prison than return to Germany, as an expression of their 


solidarity with the other prisoners. The Soviet authorities had 
not attempted to suppress the hunger-strike, and while their 
negotiations with the German Embassy dragged on for several 
months, the prisoners were given more and better food and taken 
out for daily exercise in the prison courtyard. Finally the same 
delegation of prisoners was summoned to hear the decision. The 
Russians agreed in principle to the repatriation of former German 
communists, though reserving the right to retain some of them in 
Russia "at their own discretion". The German official added that a 
second hunger-strike would produce no further result, as the 
Embassy had accepted the Russian terms. The prisoners thus had 
no choice and agreed. Hans, Otto and Stefan were among those 
who remained in the prison. In January 1940, in another cell, 
sentences of ten years each were read out to them, and in February 
they were transported to Yercevo. They knew nothing of the five 
hundred or so fortunate prisoners who had left for Germany. 

When Hans finished telling me his story, I asked all three if they 
really believed that German concentration camps were better than 
Soviet labour camps like this one. Hans shrugged his shoulders and 
muttered something contemptuously, but Stefan seemed to under- 
stand my point of view. Then Otto, who had been silent up till 
then, raised his large head, and piercing Stefan with the gaze of his 
pig-like eyes said almost in these very words: "You have a 
dangerous tendency to philosophise, Stefan. The Fatherland is 
always the Fatherland, and Russia will always be dreck." I, too, 
gave up this "philosophising". In the situation in which we found 
ourselves, to talk to them about the horrors of Nazi rule would 
mean as much as telling three rats caught in a trap that the nearest 
hole in the floor leads to a similar trap. 

The next day, at dawn, they were taken to the Nyandoma camp 
section. Stefan noticed me as I stood at the camp gate in the crowd 
of prisoners forming ranks in brigades, waiting to be marched out 
beyond the zone, and lifting his hand, cried: "Auf Wiedersehen, 
mein Freund!" In April I received a letter from Hans, which I have 
kept to this day. "Stefan" he wrote "is working as best as he can 
at general work. I, Hans, have managed to get work as a mechanic, 
Otto is still at the saw-mill. We have no news of our dear ones in 
the U.S.S.R. The northern spring is so sad, especially in the 
conditions in which we live here." 


Until 1947 1 was convinced that the most probable ending of the 
Moscow episode was that the Russian authorities, with the con- 
nivance of the German Embassy, divided the striking prisoners into 
several large newly-mixed groups, and retained each of these, "at 
their own discretion", in a different Soviet prison, so that not a 
single one ever reached Germany. But in London I was told by 
Alex Weissberg, once an outstanding Viennese communist who 
was the companion of Arthur Koestler's youth, the true ending of 
this story, and his testimony was confirmed a year later by Margaret 
Buber-Neumann's book Under Two Dictators. It took place in the 
winter of 1940, on the bridge which spans the River Bug at Brest. 
At night, the group of Germans crossed the river, which was then 
the frontier between the Russian and the German zones of demarca- 
tion in Poland, and, without an arch of triumph, made their way 
back to the Fatherland, where their fate was to stay all quiet on the 
Western front. My three comrades were not among them. The 
German Jews, who were attempting to resist, were forced by the 
N.K.V.D. across the river and straight into the hands of the 
Gestapo. Alex Weissberg was released beyond the Bug, and spent 
the whole war in hiding in Poland. 


"... and as life is impossible without hope he 
found a means of escape in a voluntary and 
almost artificial martyrdom." 

DOSTOEVSKY The House of the Dead. 

THE whole system of forced labour in Soviet Russia in all its 
stages, the interrogations and hearings, the preliminary imprison- 
ment, and the camp itself is intended primarily not to punish the 
criminal, but rather to exploit him economically and transform him 
psychologically. Torture is applied at the hearings not on principle, 
but as an auxiliary instrument. The real object of a hearing is not 
the extortion from the accused of the prisoner's signature to a 
fictitious indictment, but the complete disintegration of his in- 
dividual personality. 

A man woken up in the middle of the night, unable to satisfy his 
most elementary physical needs during the hearing, sitting for hours 
at a time on a small hard stool, blinded by the light of a powerful 
bulb directed straight at his eyes, surprised by sudden, cunning 
questions and by an overwhelming crescendo of fictitious ac- 
cusations, sadistically taunted with the sight of cigarettes and hot 
coffee on the other side of the table, and all this going on for 
months, sometimes even years under these circumstances he is 
ready to sign anything. That, however, is not the essential point. 
A prisoner is considered to have been sufficiently prepared for the 
final achievement of the signature only when his personality has 
been thoroughly dismantled into its component parts. Gaps appear 
in the logical association of ideas; thoughts and emotions become 
loosened in their original positions and rattle against each other like 
the parts of a broken-down machine; the driving-belts connecting 
the past with the present slip off their wheels and fall sloppily to the 
bottom of the mind; all the weights and levers of mind and will- 
power become jammed and refuse to function; the indicators of the 
pressure gauges jump as if possessed from zero to maximum and 
back again. The machine still runs on larger revolutions, but it does 



not work as it did all that had a moment before appeared absurd 
now becomes probable even though still not true, emotions lose 
their colour, will-power its capacity. The prisoner is now willing to 
admit that he had betrayed the interests of the proletariat by writing 
to his relatives abroad, that his slackness at work was sabotage 
of socialist industry. This is the crucial moment for the examining 
judge. One final blow at the rusty mechanism of resistance, and the 
machine will stop altogether. A man sleeping under an anaesthetic 
remains for a split-second suspended in a vacuum, when he feels, 
thinks and understands nothing. When the patient's heart stops 
beating for that fraction of a second, then is the time for immediate 
action. A trifling oversight, a slight delay, and the patient will 
regain consciousness on the operating table and then either rebel 
and shout out, or break down and retire into perpetual apathy. 
For the judge it is now or never. His eyes glance at the single piece 
of factual evidence, prepared for just this moment, his hands pick 
up the document like a scalpel. Only a few hours ago it could have 
been dismissed as insignificant, but as it is the only proof which has 
any foundation in fact, it grows now in the scorched imagination 
of the accused to gigantic proportions. The scalpel has found the 
right spot and the incision deepens. In feverish haste the surgeon 
cuts out the heart, his probing instruments transplant it to the body's 
right side, strip flakes of infected tissue from the brain, graft small 
patches of skin, change the direction of the blood flow, repair the 
torn network of the nervous system. The human mechanism, 
arrested at its lowest ebb and taken to pieces, is reconstructed and 
altered; those gaps between disjointed ideas are filled by new con- 
nections; thoughts and feelings settle in new bearings; the driving 
belts start to turn in the opposite direction, transmitting not the past 
to the present, but the present to the past; the efforts of mind and 
will are directed to different purposes; the arrows of the gauges will 
always point to maximum. The prisoner wakes from his trance, 
turns an exhausted but smiling face towards his benefactor, and 
with a deep sigh admits that now everything is clear to him, that he 
had erred all his life, but that now all will be well. The operation 
has been successful, the patient is reborn. Only once more, after his 
return to the cell, as he stands over the bucket and relieves his long- 
suffering bladder, when he feels drops of sweat on his forehead and 
the relaxation of tension in his whole body, he hesitates, and 
wonders whether he has dreamt or really lived through this re-in- 


carnation. For the last time in his life he falls asleep with a sensa- 
tion of tormenting uncertainty the next morning he wakes feeling 
empty as a nut without a kernel and weak after the inhuman strain 
to which his whole organism has been subjected during the past 
few months, but dazzled by the thought that everything is already 
behind him. When a prisoner walks between the bunks without 
saying a word to anyone, it is easy for the others to guess that he is a 
convalescent with rapidly healing scars and a newly-assembled 
personality, taking his first uncertain steps in a new world. 

In the period between the hearings and the sentence (which will 
be passed in his absence and probably send him on a quick journey 
to the camp), the prisoner becomes acclimatised in the cell to his 
new situation. Instinct warns him against talking to prisoners who 
have not yet undergone the Great Change, for the stitches on his 
scars are still too fresh to withstand the sharp pulls of ruthless 
tearing hands. He is afraid above all of the moment when the whole 
of his new reality will topple from one blow like a house of cards, 
when the old brain, ruining the patient work of months, shows 
enough determination to understand that the new heart beats 
differently and elsewhere than before, and some atavistic voice, 
echoing from the rubble of the past, sends him rushing at the cell 
door with clenched fists and a desperate cry: "I lied, I lied! I with- 
draw everything! I'm innocent, take me to the judge! I want to see 
the judge, I'm innocent!" If he is fortunate enough to be spared 
that crisis, the prisoner can lie for days on his bunk, calm and 
indifferent to everything, simply waiting for a transfer to his camp. 
In this somnambulistic state he notices the feeble light of his last 
hope seeping into his own prison through a narrow breach in its 
cold wall: he begins to long for the camp, timidly at first, then with 
growing impatience. An unknown voice a precious relic of his old 
personality, an assurance that he had been and still could be different 
deceives him with the illusion of a free life in the camp, among 
men of whom some must surely still remember the past. He now 
needs only two things : work and pity. It is not pity for himself that 
he requires, since he regards what he has just gone through as 
basically his own victory. He feels dimly that if he is to save the 
slight thread that still binds him to the buried past in which he was a 
different person, he must at all costs generate in himself a feeling of 
pity for his companions in misery, and of compassion for the 
suffering of others, which could prove to him that, despite his inner 


transformation, he has remained a human being. "Can one live 
without pity?" he asks himself at night, turning from side to side 
and mopping his forehead anxiously as he tries to remember 
whether once, in that obliterated past, his only reaction to human 
suffering had been the same painful indifference that he has felt 
since his rebirth. Can one live without pity? 

In the camp he learns that it is only too easy. At first he shares 
his bread with hunger-demented prisoners, leads the night-blind on 
the way home from work, shouts for help when his neighbour at 
work in the forest has chopped off two fingers, and surreptitiously 
carries cans of soup and herring-heads to the mortuary. After 
several weeks he realises that his motives in all this are neither pure 
nor really disinterested, that he is following the egoistic injunctions 
of his brain and saving first of all himself. The camp, where 
prisoners live at the lowest level of humanity and follow their own 
brutal code of behaviour toward others, helps him to reach this con- 
clusion. How could he have supposed, back in the prison, that a 
man can be so degraded as to arouse not compassion but only 
loathing and repugnance in his fellow-prisoners? How can he help 
the night-blind, when every day he sees them being jolted with rifle- 
butts because they are delaying the brigade's return to work, and 
then impatiently pushed off the paths by prisoners hurrying to 
the kitchen for their soup; how visit the mortuary and brave the 
constant darkness and the stench of excrement; how share his 
bread with a hungry madman who on the very next day will greet 
him in the barrack with a demanding, persistent stare? After two or 
three months of this struggle, the prisoner who has undergone the 
Great Change and is now making a desperate attempt to recover 
some of the past conceptions which were submerged at the hearing 
finally gives in. He listens without contradiction to the daily 
grumbling in his barrack: "Those bastards in the mortuary stuff 
themselves with our bread, and don't even work for it"; "Those 
night-blind lower our norms after dark and then sprawl all over the 
paths so that you can't even move"; "Those madmen ought to be 
locked up in the punishment cells, they'll be stealing our bread 
soon." He remembers and believes the words of his examining 
judge, who told him that the iron broom of Soviet justice sweeps 
only rubbish into its camps, and that men worthy of the name are 
able to prove that their imprisonment is due to a judicial error. 
The last thread has snapped, the prisoner's education is complete. 


There remains only the exploitation of his cheap labour, and if he 
survives eight or ten years of the work, he will be fit to take the 
place of the examining judge behind a table, confronting the future 
prisoner who will be sitting where he had once sat. 

^There are, however, some who wake suddenly during this final 
trial, and stand at the crossroads of their lives to look back and 
realise clearly that they have been cheated, not convinced or 
converted, only destroyed as human beings, their feelings cauterised 
with a hot poker. They are still capable of one emotional effort. 
It is too late to jump at the door with raised fists and the cry "I want 
the judge, I am innocent!" but there is still time to blow the dying 
embers of his human feelings into a flame which will take the place 
of defeated compassion the flame of voluntary and almost 
artificial martyrdom. 

Without this introduction it is impossible to understand the 
story of Mikhail AJexeyevich Kostylev, a prisoner who was 
assigned to my brigade after his arrival from the camp section of 
Mostovitza. It is in no way typical of Russian prisoners, and differs 
particularly from that of the Poles. 

As a general rule, the interrogation of Poles imprisoned after the 
annexation of Eastern Poland by Russia in 1939 had different aims 
and methods from that of Russians. Its object was not the re- 
education of future Soviet citizens, but simply the extortion of a 
signature to a fictitious confession, which provided the officers in 
charge of slave labour recruitment, and of the elimination of Polish 
influence from the newly-acquired territories, with a simple pretext 
for their work. The haste and muddle with which their examinations 
were conducted led me to the conclusion that the Russians looked 
upon their recruitment of slave labour in Eastern Poland as a 
precaution in the period of transition, and that, despite their self- 
confident declarations, they had considered the possibility of 
bargaining over the Poles at the post-war international conference. 
In the opinion of the Soviet Government, Eastern Poland had been 
permanently annexed to Russia by the Ribbentrop-Molotov 
partition treaty, but its Polish inhabitants were to serve as security 
until the end of the war, a kind of pledge which was to be exploited 
and circulated like the assets of a debtor, sequestered by his 


creditor. If the war had taken a different turn and if the Russians 
could have stood by and watched it without participating, waiting 
for the final victory of Germany, I have no doubt that this "pledge" 
would eventually have become the property of this strange 
"creditor", and one and a half million citizens of Eastern Poland 
would have begun the procedure of hearings and prison all over 
again, this time under the supervision of trained and experienced 
examiners who would go into their cases thoroughly. 

When Kostylev awoke from the two-year trance which followed 
his hearing, it became clear to him that he had been cheated, and 
how he had been cheated. All that I have written above is not an 
artificial theory of the corrective function of Soviet labour camps 
which, wise after the event, I have myself constructed, nor a 
psychological interpretation of the life and death of M. A. Kostylev, 
but his own, frequently repeated story. Like a bloodhound who has 
once found the right scent, Kostylev carefully traced all the details 
of his imprisonment, his interrogation, and his life in the camp, and 
he had learnt to describe them calmly, convincingly and with 
knowledge, like a consumptive who, with feigned detachment, 
follows the progress of the disease in his own body. Neither did I 
invent the formula of voluntary martyrdom which follows a 
prisoner's failure to save himself by compassion; I heard it from 
Kostylev when I asked him what he hoped to gain by torturing 
himself physically every three or four days. The manner of his 
conversation might have given rise to the suspicion that Kostylev 
was suffering from a peculiar form of religious mania, inherited 
from generations of Russian mystics, or else from a gentle schizo- 
phrenia which, imperceptibly even to himself, had developed as a 
result of the shock of almost a year's hearings and of the first few 
months in the camp. He talked quietly, concisely and intelligently, 
with a persuasive conviction, so typical of the mentally deranged, 
which denies and abolishes all argument and, having gained the 
listener over to the premises and the logical connections of ideas, 
leads him into agreement with the conclusions. I do not exclude 
either of these possibilities, but this cannot prevent me from 
repeating here his whole story as I heard it from him. It is important 
because, in one way or another, my friendship with Kostylev has 
coloured the recollection of my Soviet experiences, and his death 
did not pass without an echo even among the other prisoners of 


Kostylev was twenty-four when, at the request of the Party, he 
left his engineering studies at the Moscow Polytechnic and 
entered the naval school at Vladivostok. He came originally from 
Voronezh; his father died when he was very young, and from his 
earliest years he had to look after his mother, who after her hus- 
band's death transferred to her son all the unfulfilled love of a 
young widow. Love for his mother was the only point of stability in 
Kostylev's surrounding reality. He belonged to the Komsomol (the 
Communist Youth Organisation), and later to the Party, but his 
individuality was constantly escaping from the repressive frame- 
work of political training into the arms of his mother. His father, 
on his death-bed, had enjoined of him loyalty to his mother and to 
the "great achievement of the October Revolution". Kostylev had 
from childhood grown up in an atmosphere of communism and he 
did not even suppose that a third object of loyalty could exist in the 
world. He did not, therefore, hesitate when the Komsomol asked 
him to study engineering in Moscow, even though, as he asserted, 
he had always been attracted to literature; neither did he oppose the 
Party's decision to send him to a naval school in Vladivostok as a 
young student-engineer. 

Here, before describing the further events of his life, it would be 
useful to consider the nature and the peculiar characteristics of 
Kostylev's communism. His mother, a simple and rather religious 
woman, understood little of what her husband said to her about 
politics, but reverence for his memory, and an instinctive antici- 
pation of the family's safety, caused her to applaud and feed her 
son's revolutionary fervour. Her naive faith satisfied him in his 
early youth, but after he had entered the Moscow Polytechnic his 
mature intelligence needed a rational foundation for the beliefs to 
which he had so far been faithful with his heart. He became 
acquainted with the classics of Marxism, studied Lenin and Stalin 
thoroughly, took an active part in Party meetings and discussions. 
He saw himself as a missionary, a communist engineer who was 
spreading the new technical civilisation in a Russia which was then 
"catching up and out-distancing the West" During the years of 
secluded life with his mother, when he would see her severe profile 
outlined against the window of the small cottage in Voronezh as he 
returned from school, and later, in the half-darkness inside, bend 
over her work-hardened hands with pain in his heart, he gradually 
felt the need to sacrifice himself, to suffer that others might be 


happy. Party propaganda told him that real suffering existed only 
in the capitalist West, and he became fired with the idea of a world 
revolution. An important element in the shaping of his personality 
was the fact that, undeterred by the wild, frenzied attacks on the 
capitalist world which emanated from the Soviet press and pro- 
paganda, Kostylev swore devotion to the cause of liberating 
enslaved Europeans in the name not of hatred, but of love for the 
unknown West. 

It is not easy to understand how this young boy, who until he left 
home to study in Moscow had never known any world but his 
native Voronezh and the walls of the modest workers' fiat, could 
have formed such an idealised picture of the West. The most likely 
explanation is that, naturally inclined to enthusiasm rather than to 
hatred, his imagination was caught by the figures of the Western 
"fighters for freedom" officially canonised by Party propaganda, 
figures who stoo'd out clearly in all their glory when the economic, 
religious and social background of their activity was condemned 
by the vulgar catch-phrases of the same propaganda. Soviet 
educators have still not completely understood the functioning of 
the immature imagination; the sharply-contoured silhouettes of 
saints make a far deeper and more lasting impression on it than all 
the horrors of hell. It was comic and at the same time tragic to see 
Kostylev, in March 1941, trembling with admiration at the very 
mention of Thorez. He considered him to be the only true heir of 
the Great French Revolution, though he could not understand why 
the heir should be so blindly obedient to the man who had ' 'betrayed 
the October Revolution". 

Young Misha lost no time, and during four years in Moscow, 
besides his studies and his Party activities, he learnt enough French 
at evening classes to be able to read it freely. In Vladivostok he 
began to read in earnest, and by chance came upon Goncharov's 
diary of his journey round the world, The Frigate Pallada. This 
journal turned his youthful dreams into more realistic channels 
he studied with redoubled energy and enthusiasm, possessed by a 
restless urge to travel. There is no doubt that the pattern of his life 
was becoming at least unusual; he was going through the imagina- 
tive experiences of a boy at a mature age, making up for a childhood 
which had been deformed by the responsibilities thrust upon it. 

During his second year at the naval school, Kostylev found a 
small private lending library in Vladivostok, and in it several torn 


French books: Balzac, Stendhal, Flaubert's Education Sentimentale, 
Musset's Confession d'un Enfant de Siecle, and the Adolphe of 
Benjamin Constant. He did not expect to read anything exceptional 
in them his only intention was to practise his French but the 
world which they opened up to him surpassed his wildest dreams, 
seemed indeed to be some unreal dream-world. From that time he 
lived in a state of continual excitement. He read through the nights, 
neglected his work, stopped attending Party meetings, became 
secretive and avoided his best friends. Many times he tried to 
explain to me the feelings which this discovery of French literature 
awoke in him. 

"I was sick with longing for something indefinable,'* he told me, 
stroking his angular, shaved head with his good hand. "I breathed 
different air; I felt like a man who has been choking all his life 
without knowing it. You must understand that it isn't a question of 
facts, for, after all, men love, die, amuse themselves, plot and suffer 
all over the world in the same way. No, it was a question of 
atmosphere. All that I read about seemed to be taking place in a 
tropical climate, while I had lived from my birth in a desert of 
ice. . . . It's true that I had seen another life in Moscow, but there 
I couldn't share it, it was like a sectarian debauch which did not 
flow out into the streets through the doors of closed hotels. . . ." 

"But, Misha," I would argue obstinately, "that is only literature. 
You've no idea how much misery and suffering exists in the 

"I know, I know" he would shake his head "my examining 
judge said the same thing. But if I have ever known, even for a short 
time, what freedom is, then it was while I was reading those old 
French books. I was like an ice-bound ship, and it's no wonder that 
I tried to escape into warm waters." 

Kostylev frequently made use of unfortunate literary com- 
parisons in his conversation, but that one happened to be unusually 
apt. Large, powerful, with his head bowed like some iron battering- 
ram, and a fist the size of a blacksmith's hammer, he really did look 
like an ice-breaker. 

Kostylev's story, not altogether clear to me when I first heard it 
and saw its epilogue, now becomes as understandable as a 
deciphered palimpsest. While reading the original text, it was 
essential not to accept Kostylev's own interpretation of it, not to see 
his tragedy as it impressed itself upon his primeval, subconscious 


memory. But alas! Kostylev fancied himself as a researcher, and 
before he would allow others to interpret the story of his life, he 
insisted on making a detailed and very one-sided analysis of it. He 
was convinced, for instance, that he owed his "resurrection" to 
several French romances; in my opinion, he merely read them too 
late, and unfortunately in French. As far as I know, all the books 
that Kostylev "discovered" had been translated into Russian, 
embellished with irritating Marxist commentaries which could be 
ignored, and made easily available in the cheap editions of the State 
Publishing House. It happened accidentally that Kostylev read 
them, in French, at an age when long repression had given to his 
belated, undischarged youthful rebelliousness a morbid and even 
maniacal character; he persuaded himself that he had been cheated, 
that the "whole truth" had been concealed from him. His attitude 
to the West was that of a converted neophyte, who blames a 
conspiracy of lies and the perfidy of rival priests for his erring in 
the old faith. He drew away from the Party, he did not even 
hesitate to lay part of the blame for his devotion to false gods on 
his mother and his upbringing. One day he forgot himself in a 
discussion with his friends and shouted: 

"Liberate the West! From what? From a life of happiness such 
as we have never known?" 

There was an immediate silence in the group, but the incident was 
temporarily forgotten. 

The owner of the private lending library was a German from the 
Volga settlements called Berger; in 1937 he was arrested, and 
several weeks later he dragged Kostylev into prison after him. 
The first hearing showed that Kostylev's implication in Berger's 
case was merely accidental: when giving the police a list of the 
people who frequented his library, the old German had not failed to 
include "a tall, broad-shouldered student from the naval school". 
Even though Berger was arrested during the Great Purges, when 
suspicion could fall on anybody, there were several authentic 
aspects of his case which would have awoken the suspicions of any 
normal police. He was beyond doubt the intermediary in the 
exchange of gold for foreign currency and Japanese luxury goods, of 
which the Kolyma camp chiefs had been guilty. 

Kostylev was repeatedly beaten unconscious in prison, then 
beaten again after a bucket of cold water had brought him round; 
he was hardly able to see through the chinks in the plaster of dried 


blood over his eyes, and his mouth was swollen with torn jaws and 
loose teeth. He would not admit his "guilt", and his determination 
grew in proportion to the increased intensity of his sufferings. The 
human organism is an unfathomable machine; it is true that it 
possesses a certain limit of endurance, but beyond that limit there is 
either complete submission, or else unexpected rebellion which is 
itself only a form of anaesthetic in extremis. The condition of lasting 
psychological apathy, caused by a break-down in the first line of 
physical resistance and the crushing of all the centres which 
send out together with waves of pain the command to stop and 
surrender, usually ends with total paralysis of the will and a 
dislocation of the backbone which beating has anyway made as 
useless as a cracked stick in a rag doll; but sometimes it also 
happens that the organism, though numbed by continual beating, 
mechanically repeats the remembered efforts of the submerging 
consciousness, like the instinctive conditioned reflexes of a body in 
its final agony. Kostylev remembered only that he had hissed with 
determination through clenched teeth: "I'm innocent, I've never 
been a spy". He fainted for a long while at the moment when, 
having cried u No!" for the last time, he felt the convulsive clashing 
of his jaws dislocating his front teeth and spat them out, choking, 
together with a stream of warm blood and vomit which broke 
through his closed gullet and gushed at the wall like oil from a 
pierced shaft. He felt relief, then all was darkness. His fainting 
saved him, for when he woke a few days later he was in the prison 
hospital, where he had been washed and bandaged. 

At the next hearing the accusation of espionage was dropped and 
the interrogation took the form of casual conversations about 
Kostylev's general political opinions. It was clear that the N.K.V.D. 
had no intention of sending him back to the naval school in such a 
condition, and had decided to investigate in a different direction. 
It was too late to save the young engineer's massacred face, but it 
was still possible to save the face of that powerful institution which 
for twenty years had watched over the safety of the revolution. 
The theory of Soviet law is based on the principle that no one is 
innocent. An examining judge who receives a prisoner into his care 
can after many unsuccessful investigations abandon the original 
indictment, but this does not mean that he should not try his luck 
elsewhere. The prisoners have found an excellent expression to 
describe this curious proceeding "What have they pinned on 


you?" they ask their companions who return from a hearing. As a 
result the sentence is always to a certain extent a compromise; the 
accused is made to realise that "he wasn't brought there for 
nothing", and the N.K.V.D., continues without hindrance to 
cultivate the myth of its infallibility. 

There is no need to describe Kostylev's interrogation in detail, 
since the disintegration and transformation of a prisoner's per- 
sonality has been reconstructed at the beginning of this chapter 
from his own accounts of his experiences. Kostylev's case was 
taken out of the general Berger dossier, and put into the hands of 
another judge. Misha breathed freely again. During the whole of 
this second interrogation, which, with only short interludes, 
continued during a whole year in the Vladivostok prison, he was not 
once beaten or even struck. At times the nightly hearings resembled 
eager discussions between young students; Kostylev defended his 
own position, attacked the other's, made long speeches, and after 
his return to the cell prepared for the next verbal encounter like a 
barrister marshalling his case for the court. All this time the 
examining judge listened politely, interposing only an occasional 
remark and making notes. For Kostylev, who already knew that 
the N.K.V.D. had other methods and arguments at its disposal, 
those first three months of gradual awakening were like fresh 
morning sleep after a night of bad dreams. He even came to like his 
taciturn but always smiling judge, who would offer him coffee and 
cigarettes, enquire solicitously about the wounds on his head and 
bend closer to catch every word whenever Kostylev lowered his 
voice. But the first phase of the hearing led nowhere. Kostylev had 
confessed everything about himself to the judge and admitted his 
sinful love for the West, and he now requested that the case should 
be taken out of the hands of the prison authorities and put before 
the plenum of the Party organisation at the naval school. The 
accusation of "succumbing to the influence of bourgeois 
liberalism" would have been more properly discussed by the 
students' central committee, which prolongs or cancels Party 
membership cards, instead of forming the only accusation in an 
N.K.V.D. prison. His inquisitor was of a different opinion, and 
now he opened the attack. 

The decor of the hearings changed as if on a revolving stage. 
Kostylev was now woken in the night, taken back to the cell after a 
few hours, woken again at dawn, called out to hearings during 


meals and during the time reserved for the daily visit to the 

latrine; he was forbidden to wash, and deprived of his daily walk in 

the prison courtyard. There was no suggestion now of cigarettes 

and hot coffee. Kostylev walked about stunned and bewildered, his 

eyes were red from lack of sleep, his head burned from the still 

unhealed wounds, and the blood inside it roared like boiling water 

at the bottom of a pan. There were times when in full daylight, on 

his way to the hearing, he would stagger on his legs and lean against 

the wall of the corridor like a blind man ; other times when he would 

faint on the stool before the judge's table. He now spent most of his 

hours in the small room where, day and night, dark blinds were 

drawn across the bars, shutting him off from time, which flowed 

beyond the windows, and making him easy prey for cunning 

questions in the fierce circle of electric light. At times he felt as if his 

head was an enormous pin-cushion, stuffed with horsehair and 

bristling with a thousand needles. He felt their painful, repeated 

stabs, and in an access of despair he would try to smother the pain 

by tearing at the bandages on his forehead, brow and cheeks, or by 

putting his hands to his ears, where the pricking of sharp needles 

was transformed into the crumbling sound of steel shavings falling 

to the bottom of an empty shell. He lost all consciousness of the 

passing of time, he was weakened by frequent emissions in his 

sleep, he would jerk up on the bunk at the sound of his name, 

suffocated and half-conscicus, staring all round with burning, 

uncomprehending eyes. 

He was now in principle ready and willing to admit some abstract 
guilt, and he even tried to suggest the idea to the judge. But the 
inquisitor, whose expression had changed as if a mask had dropped 
off his face, needed more facts. Who belonged to the secret 
organisation in the naval school? Where and when did its meetings 
take place? What were the organisation's practical aims? What 
contacts did it have outside? Who was its leader? Kostylev denied 
everything with a last effort of his will, but he knew that if the 
hearings continued much longer he would begin to invent names 
and circumstances, escaping from the menace of an empty reality 
by recourse to fiction. This stage of the hearing continued for three 
months, which approached in their tension and mental agony the 
short episode of physical torture when the Berger case was still at 
issue. But one night the hearing took an unexpected turn; he was 
told to sign a document which stated that his seditious agitation in 


the naval school was never based on any definite organisation. 

In its third stage the interrogation again became easier. Kostylev 
was summoned on one evening a week, sometimes even one a 
fortnight, for informal discussions about "the actual conditions 
prevailing in Western Europe". Now it was the examining judge 
who talked polite, smiling and forbearing as before while 
Kostylev listened and asked questions; the lectures were interesting 
and intelligent, the arguments supported with books, figures and 

After what he had just gone through, the changed tone of the 
hearing was in itself sufficient to dispose Kostylev to make a 
moderate gesture of repentance. But he went even further and 
allowed himself to be really convinced, believing everything that his 
former persecutor told him. He listened attentively, quietly 
whispering "But that's terrible," he asked for details, drew the 
expected logical conclusions from the facts provided in one word, 
he was now discovering the perfidy of the West with the same 
sincere exaltation with which he had once discovered its truth. It 
might have seemed that the infection under the skin had at last 
gathered into an overcharged abscess, ready for the incision. But the 
judge prolonged the interrogation artificially as if to make sure that 
the sinner's conversion was not merely the dissembling escape of a 
helpless victim. What else was there to discuss? The prisoner was 
willing to atone for all the moments of weakness and hesitation, 
for his faith had returned to him. He was ready to show by his 
work that he was glad to sacrifice his life for what he had learnt 
to love. 

"Well, Kostylev," the examining judge said one evening, "we can 
finish the interrogation today. You must sign a confession, and 
then it will be over. It all boils down to this: you intended to 
abolish the present government of the Soviet Union with the aid of 
foreign powers." 

Kostylev crouched and drew back as if to leap up suddenly. 
The blood rushed to his head, and in another moment he would 
have shouted "It's a lie!" But in his astonishment he only managed 
to repeat: 

"Abolish the government of the Soviet Union with the aid of 
foreign powers?" 

Then, without taking his eyes off Kostylev, the examining judge 
drew out of his brief-case and threw on the table the signed testi- 


mony of three students from the naval school. One sentence had 
been underlined with a red pencil. 

"Read it aloud!" the judge ordered sharply. 

" 'Liberate the West! From what? From a life of happiness such 
as we have never known?' " 

Kostylev let the paper fall on the table and lowered his head. He 
thought of his imaginary travels, his dreams of a journey to the 
West. After all, who knows. . . . Everything seemed logical 
unreal, but terribly logical. Before him lay a column of checked and 
re-checked figures it only remained to underline it and add the 
total. He asked for the confession and slowly put his name to it. 

"May I write to my mother?" he asked quietly. "I haven't 
written to her for a year." 

"You'll get paper and an envelope in your cell tomorrow." 

After the completed hearing Kostylev returned to his solitary cell 
only to collect his possessions, and was then taken to a common 
cell. He lay on his bunk in silence, avoiding all conversation, and 
stared at the ceiling. The nightmare of sleepless nights and days of 
agonising tension had come to an end. He was glad to be leaving for 
a camp. After nearly a year's idleness, almost as tormenting as the 
hearings and beatings, he wanted to work and live among normal 
men. At night he thought of his future companions, and repeated 
to himself the question: "Can one live without pity? Can one live 
without pity?" 

In January 1939 he was given a sentence of ten years and sent to 
the Kargopol camp, and after a few days in Yercevo, transferred 
under the "technical experts scheme" to Mostovitza. He acquired 
the reputation of a saint among the prisoners in that camp section. 
Long after his death, whenever a larger transport from Mostovitza 
passed through the peresylny barrack in Yercevo, the name of 
"the engineer Mikhail Alexeyevich Kostylev" was pronounced with 
awe and reverence. As an engineer from the "technical barrack", 
Kostylev lived in better conditions than the others and his work was 
comparatively light. He gave most of his own bread away, carried 
soup tickets to the mortuary, took advantage of the fact that he 
was allowed to go beyond the zone without an escort to bring back 
an occasional scrap of fat or vegetables for the sick. He reported 
the norms of all prisoners in the brigades which were under his 
command at the saw-mill as higher than their actual output, and 
this piece of toufta finished him. He was denounced by one of the 


brigadiers, and an administrative order from the chief of the 
whole Kargopol camp deprived him of the right to work as a 
technical expert for the whole duration of his sentence. He was 
assigned to a brigade of foresters, where he soon forgot pity and 
compassion; indeed, he needed it more than the others. Physical 
labour crushed and degraded him to such a degree that he would 
have stopped at nothing to get an additional scrap of bread. He 
hated his fellow-prisoners, and from that time looked upon them as 
his natural, greatest enemies. It is possible that he would have sunk 
even lower, to the greatest crime which a man worthy of the name 
can commit in the camp the crime of spying and denunciation 
if, by accident, he had not come across one of the books which he 
had read at liberty, in Vladivostok. He read it again in the camp, 
crying like a child who has found his mother's hand in the dark. 
And for the second time he realised that he had been cheated. 

In March 1941 he came to Yercevo, with his right arm in a sling, 
and was formally included in the porters' brigade. 

At dawn the barrack was already light, but over twenty porters 
were still asleep in their corner, undisturbed by Dimka's shouted 
announcement that breakfast was over. After working all night at 
the supply centre, we were allowed to sleep through the morning 
reveille, and to collect our breakfast during the lunch break, before 
marching out to work again. 

At that time I had still not accustomed myself to heavy physical 
labour. I slept deeply, heavily, as if I had lost consciousness, but 
often only for two hours a night. Then I would wake and lie 
without stirring on my bunk among my sleeping neighbours, slowly 
accustoming myself to the thought of a fresh day's work. 

It was because I seldom managed to sleep after the general 
awakening that I discovered the secret of Kostylev's bandaged 
right arm on the day after his arrival in the camp. Dimka, having 
made the formal declaration that the kitchen had finished issuing 
breakfast, had gone out as usual into the zone. The barrack was 
empty, except for the sleeping porters and a young man who sat by 
the fibre, reading a book with evident emotion. The day before we 
had been told that a new prisoner from Mostovitza had joined us, 
and that he would go out to work with us as soon as his arm was 
healed and his dispensation from work withdrawn. He was tall, but 


his head was somehow too large and angular, as if chipped from 
living stone; two bushy eyebrows sprouted from the low, over- 
hanging forehead and almost hid the tiny, blazing eyes, sunk like 
two pieces of coal in his famine-swollen cheeks. Only the lower part 
of his face gave it an unforgettable expression of intelligence, 
combined with a fanatic, implacable obstinacy. The narrow lips, 
convulsively tightened, at once brought to mind the portraits of 
mediaeval monks. I remember my instant delight in this mixture of 
sensitivity and almost brutal harshness. The hair which hung over 
his forehead emphasised his likeness to a statue. His left hand 
turned over the pages of the book with instinctive reverence, and 
the useless right arm held it in place on his knees. While he read, a 
charmingly naive, childish smile played in the corners of his mouth. 

Suddenly he looked round to make certain that no one was 
stirring in our corner, then laid the book aside and began to unwind 
with his good hand the bandage on his arm. It took him two or 
three minutes, and during that time he stopped once or twice to 
throw more wood on the fire. Before finally pulling the crusted 
layer of cloth and dried matter off his wound, he looked again in our 
direction and, turning his head away so as not to see the hand, gave 
a violent tug at the bandage. I thought that he was looking at me, 
but he did not see me, for his eyes closed suddenly as he drew in his 
cheeks, and his teeth bit into his lower lip from pain. Still without 
turning his head, he crawled nearer to the fire and blindly thrust the 
arm into the flames. Through his face passed a spasm of pain, his 
eyes seemed to be retreating into his head, his teeth released the 
bottom lip, his jaws met with a grating sound, and large drops of 
sweat stood out on his forehead. During those few seconds I saw 
not only the face, pierced with pain, but also the arm a swollen 
block, wrapped in strips of burnt and peeling skin and dripping 
with blood and pus which fell in small drops on to the hot logs, 
hissing like burning oil. Finally he drew it out of the fire, then fell 
heavily on to the bench, and hiding his head between his knees, 
wiped the perspiration from his face with the sleeve of his left hand. 
He seemed to be relaxing and loosening after the hideous ordeal, 
like a street acrobat who tenses all the muscles of his body to escape 
from the chains which bind him, and then collapses on the pave- 
ment like a punctured balloon. 

I climbed down from my bunk and sat down at the table, but he 
noticed my presence only when I picked up the dirty, saturated rag 


to help him bandage the arm. He looked at me with surprise and 
gratitude, but his tired eyes immediately gleamed with anxiety. 

"Did you see?" 

I nodded without a word. 

"You won't tell?" 

No, I would not tell. I did not disclose his secret to anyone for 
many years, even though Kostylev died a month after our meeting. 
And having once gained his secret, I soon gained his friendship. 

This happened, as far as I can remember, almost exactly in the 
middle of March 1941 ; on April 15th Kostylev's body was taken out 
beyond the zone. Thus we knew each other only a month, not long 
enough to return friendship, but enough to gain it. Kostylev became 
attached to me like a dog and, if this expression can be applied to 
the camp, we became inseparable. In reality, we were separated 
during most of the day by my work. Kostylev still figured on the 
list of dispensations, and every third evening he went to the 
infirmary for an inspection of his arm; doubtless before every such 
visit he found an opportunity to burn it in the barrack. Even 
though he told me the story of his life in detail, and explained the 
motives of his voluntary martyrdom, I believe that his self-torture 
had as much to do with dispensation from work as with martyrdom. 
Two facts seemed to support this view incontestably. First, the 
circumstances in which the idea had first occurred to him. One day, 
in the forest at Mostovitza, he was drying a piece of bread over the 
fire, and carelessly let it fall into the flames; terrified by the prospect 
of hunger, he plunged his hand in the fire without any hesitation. 
That evening he was given seven days' dispensation, and then he 
had formed his plan. And secondly, there was the way in which 
Kostylev spent his free time in the barrack. It remained a mystery 
to me throughout our friendship, a mystery which Kostylev was 
unwilling to elucidate, where and how he managed to procure so 
many books in the camp. He read through the whole day, he read 
at night, perched on an upper bunk by the bulb, he read even in the 
infirmary while waiting for his turn with the doctor. 

Kostylev's dossier must have contained a note from the 
examining judge recommending leniency and better treatment, for 
despite the crime of toufta he was sent to Yercevo after his 
accident in the forest, and with a direct assignment to the porters' 
brigade. It is also possible that his transfer to Yercevo was 
connected with a promised visit from his mother, the first since his 


arrest in 1937. It had been arranged in Mostovitza that Mrs. 
Kostylev should travel from Voronezh to Yercevo to spend three 
days at the beginning of May in the "house of meetings" with her 
son. Misha lived in a state of such excitement at the prospect of this 
visit that he did not perceive the danger which threatened him. A 
healthy prisoner whose hand, for some mysterious reason, would 
not heal, was something quite exceptional and unforeseen in the 
Soviet system of forced labour, and could not be tolerated for long. 
I frequently advised him to give up the practice of burning his arm 
and to walk out to the supply centre with us a few times, atleast until 
the time of the visit. After that he would be free to do as he pleased. 
But he only smiled at my warnings and repeated with childish 
obstinacy: "I shall never work for them again. Never, do you 
understand? Never!" 

In the first days of April we suddenly heard that a transport for 
Kolyma was being prepared in our camp. Now that I have read 
something about German concentration camps, I realise that a 
transfer to Kolyma was in Soviet labour camps the equivalent of 
the German "selection for the gas-chamber". The analogy becomes 
even more accurate when it is seen that, as for the gas-chambers, the 
prisoners for Kolyma were taken from among those in the worst 
state of health, though in Russia they were being sent not to an 
immediate death but to hard labour which required exceptional 
physical strength and endurance. The secret of this nightmarish 
paradox is that every camp chief is responsible first of all for his 
own camp, and for the fulfilment of the production plan assigned to 
it; when he receives an order to supply so many of his prisoners for 
a convoy, he gets rid of the weakest and retains the strongest. 
Our camp froze in fear and expectation at the news: the con- 
versations in the barracks died down, no one grumbled at work, the 
infirmary was empty of patients. The day of our last judgement was 
approaching, and we faced the countenance of our Lord with 
humble faces, following the lightning thrusts of his sword with a 
suppliant gaze. 

Even then I could not persuade Kostylev to attempt some work, 
and he was in the infirmary every third day, the only patient there 
besides the nacmeny from the mortuary. On the evening of April 
10th he was informed that his name had been included in the 
Kolyma list and told to report at the bath-house the next morning 
for what was known as a "sanitary preparation". He took this 


blow calmly, but seemed to be stupefied, and only whispered: 
"Now I shall never see my mother." 

Even today I cannot say why, the same evening, I went to the 
camp chief's office and offered to take Kostylev's place in the 
transport, but I believe that my physical and psychological con- 
dition was responsible. I was at the lowest ebb of my endurance, 
and the prospect of three months' idleness this was the length of 
the journey to Kolyma was a temptation; Iwas still young enough 
to be thrilled by some indefinable hope of exploration on this 
journey to the edge of the world; finally, I was emotionally involved 
with Kostylev so deeply that I could not draw back before this 
trial of the permanence of our friendship. Enough to say that in the 
camp chief's office I put my request to Samsonov's deputy. He 
looked at me with astonishment but without a trace of anger. 

"This is a labour camp," he said briefly, "not a sentimental 

Kostylev was not surprised to hear that I had tried to save him. 
He was really living in a "romance", though not perhaps such a 
sentimental one as may have appeared to Samsonov's assistant, a 
romance with a tragic ending, of which he was probably certain by 
now, and to him it seemed perfectly consistent that his "good friend 
from the West" should make an attempt to avert the catastrophe. 
He pressed my hand warmly and went out without a word. I knew 
that I might never see him again, for prisoners for distant destinations 
were sometimes taken straight from the bath-house to the station. 

But the next evening, as I came back from work, I found Dimka 
waiting for me at the guard-house. 

"Gustav Yosifovich," he whispered, catching my hand, 
"Kostylev has poured a bucket of boiling water over himself in the 
bath-house. He's in the hospital." 

They would not allow me to see Him in the hospital, and there was 
nothing that I could have done there. Kostylev was dying in slow 
agony, and until the end he did not regain consciousness. He had 
obtained his final dispensation. And though he died not as he had 
lived, when I knew him and in my way loved him, I see him still 
today, the symbolic picture of a man who has repeatedly lost 
everything in which he believed, with his face twisted by pain and his 
arm plunged into the fire like the tempered blade of a sword. 

They must have forgotten to inform Kostylev's mother of her 


son's death, for in the first days of May, as we waited before the 
gate for the evening search, a soldier pointed her out to us at the 
guard-house. Through the frosted window-pane we saw her 
trembling hands, gathering a few mementoes of Misha into a small 
bundle, and her severe, wrinkled face, convulsed by tearless sobbing. 


"Don SVIDANYI", literally "the house of meetings", was the name 
which we gave to a newly-built wing of the guard-house, where 
prisoners were allowed to spend between one and three days with 
their relatives, who had come from all parts of Russia to the 
Kargopol camp for this short visit. Its topographic situation in 
the camp zone was to some extent symbolic: our entrance to the 
barrack was through the guard-house, from the zone, and the way 
out was already on the other side of the barbed wire, at liberty. 
Thus it was easy to think that the house in which the prisoners saw 
their relatives for the first time after so many years was on the 
borderline between freedom and slavery; a prisoner, shaved, 
washed and neatly dressed, having shown his pass and the official 
permit for the visit, walked through the partition straight into arms 
extended to him from liberty. 

Permission for such a visit was granted only after the most 
complicated and trying procedure had been undergone by the 
prisoner as well as by his family. As far as I can remember, every 
prisoner was in theory allowed to have one visitor a year, but the 
majority of prisoners had to wait three, sometimes even five, years 
for it. The prisoner's part was limited: when a year had passed 
from the moment of his arrest, he was free to present to the Third 
Section a written request for a visit, together with a letter from his 
family, which made it quite unmistakably clear that one of them 
wished to see him, and a certificate of his good behaviour, both at 
work and in the barrack, from the camp authorities. This meant 
that a prisoner who wanted to see bis mother or his wife had to 
work at the level of at least the second cauldron, or full norm, for a 
year; the inhabitants of the mortuary were as a rule excluded from 
the privilege of a visit. The letter from the family was no mere 
formality. Where the connections between a prisoner and a free 
person were not those of blood, but of marriage, the greatest 
pressure was put on those outside to sever all relations with the 
"enemy of the people", and many wives broke down under it. I 
read many letters in which wives wrote to their husbands in the 



camp: "I can't go on living like this," asking to be freed from 
their marriage vows. Occasionally, when the prisoner had every 
hope that permission for the visit would be granted, the procedure 
suddenly stopped dead, and only a year or two later did he learn 
that his relatives at liberty had thought better of it and withdrawn 
the original request. At other times, a prisoner who went to the 
house of meetings was welcomed not by extended arms, trembling 
with desire and longing, but by a look of weariness and words 
begging for mercy and release. Such visits confined themselves to 
the few hours necessary to settle the fate of the children, while the 
unfortunate prisoner's heart withered like a dried nut, beating 
helplessly within its hard shell. 

The initiative in the efforts to obtain permission naturally 
belongs to the family at liberty. From letters which I was shown by 
other prisoners I gathered that the procedure is prolonged, in- 
tricate, and even dangerous. The decision does not rest with 
GULAG (the Central Office of Camp Administration), which is 
concerned only with the administration of the camps and has 
nothing to do with the sentences or the indictments which produced 
them, but nominally with the Chief Prosecutor of the U.S.S.R., 
and actually with the local N.K.V.D. office in the petitioner's place 
of domicile. A free person who is sufficiently obstinate to persist in 
his audaciousness, undeterred by the initial obstacles, finds himself 
the victim of a vicious circle from which he can seldom escape. Only 
a person with an absolutely blameless political past, one who can 
prove that he is immune from the germ of counter-revolution, can 
obtain the precious permission. Now in Russia no one would dare 
enter a hearing of interrogation even with a totally clear conscience; 
in this case, too, the certificate of political health is demanded by 
officials who are the only ones with the authority to give it. Apart 
from this evident contradiction, we find another, even more 
fantastic. The presence in one's family of an enemy of the people 
is in itself sufficient proof of contamination, for jsomeone who has 
lived with him during many years cannot be free from the plague of 

The N.K.V.D. treat political offences as a contagious disease. 
Thus when a petitioner arrives at the N.K.V.D. office for a certi- 
ficate of health, that in itself is evidence of his probable infection. 
But let us suppose that the political blood tests have not shown the 
presence of infection in the organism, and the petitioner has been 


vaccinated and remains in quarantine for an indefinite time. If all 
goes well, he then receives permission for a direct, three-day contact 
with the sick man, whose very existence seemed at the interrogation 
to be dangerous even at a distance of several thousand miles. The 
cruel, discouraging paradox of this situation is that during the 
hearings at the N.K.V.D. the petitioner must do everything to 
convince the interrogator that he has broken all relations with the 
prisoner and eradicated all emotional ties with him. And back 
comes the obvious question: in that case, why should he be willing 
to undertake a distant and expensive journey in order to see the 
prisoner? There is no way out of this conundrum. No obstacle is 
put in the way of wives who ask for a visit to the camp in order to 
end their marriages, thus freeing themselves from the nightmare of a 
life in half-slavery, in an atmosphere of constant suspicion, and 
with the brand of shared responsibility for the crimes of others. 
Others either give it up or else take the final, desperate step a 
journey to Moscow to obtain the permission through special in- 
fluence there. Even if they do somehow succeed by this method, 
they will have to face the vengefulness of the local N.K.V.D. 
whom they have slighted to achieve their object, when they return 
from the camp to their native town. It is easy to guess how many 
are brave enough to risk asking for permission under these 

It is natural to ask why these monstrous difficulties and obstacles 
are put in the way of a visit, since the contingent of workers has 
already been supplied to the camps, and the costs of the journey 
there are covered by the visitor himself. I can only suggest three 
possible conjectures, of which one at least is accurate. Either the 
N.K.V.D. sincerely believes in its mission of safeguarding the 
Soviet citizen's political health; or it attempts as far as possible to 
conceal from free people the conditions of work in forced labour 
camps, and to induce them by indirect pressure to break off all 
relations with their imprisoned relatives; or in this way it is putting 
power into the hands of camp authorities, which during whole years 
can squeeze from prisoners the remnants of their strength and 
health, deluding them with the hope of an imminent visit. 

When the relative, usually the prisoner's wife or mother, at last 
finds herself in the Third Section office of the particular camp, she 
must sign a declaration, promising not to disclose by even one word, 
after her return home, what she has seen of the camp through the 


barbed wire; the privileged prisoner signs a similar declaration, 
undertaking this time under pain of heavy punishment, even of 
death- not to mention in conversation his and his fellow-prisoners' 
life and conditions in the camp. One can imagine how difficult this 
regulation makes any indirect or intimate contact between two 
people who, after many years of separation, meet for the first time 
in these unusual surroundings; what is left of a relationship between 
two people if an exchange of mutual experiences is excluded from 
it? The prisoner is forbidden to say, and the visitor forbidden to 
ask, what he has gone through since the day of his arrest. If he has 
changed beyond recognition, if he has become painfully thin, if his 
hair has turned grey and he has aged prematurely, if he looks like a 
walking skeleton, he is allowed only to remark casually that "he 
hasn't been feeling too well, for the climate of this part of Russia 
does not suit him." Having thrown a cloak of silence over what may 
be the most important period of his life, the regulations push him 
back to an already distant and dimly-remembered past, when he 
was at liberty and an entirely different man, when he felt and 
thought differently; he is in the unbearable situation of a man who 
should be free to speak, to shout even, and who is allowed only to 
listen. I have no idea whether all prisoners keep the promise 
given before the meeting, but, taking into consideration the high 
price which they would have to pay for breaking it, it may be 
supposed that they do. It is true that the closeness of the visiting 
relative may be some guarantee of discretion, but who is to say 
whether the tiny room, in which the two live together during the 
whole visit, is not supplied with an eavesdropping microphone, or 
whether a Third Section official is not listening on the other side of 
the partition? I only know that I often heard sobbing as I passed by 
the house of meetings, and I believe that this helpless, spasmodic 
weeping relieves their tension and expresses for the wretched 
human tatters, now dressed in clean prison clothing, all that they 
may not say in words. I think, too, that this is one of the ad- 
vantages of a visit, for a prisoner seldom dares to cry in front of his 
companions, and the nightly sobbing in their sleep in the barrack 
proved to me that it could bring great relief. In the emptiness 
which sealed lips create between the two people in the house of 
meetings, they advance cautiously like lovers who, having lost their 
sight during long years of separation, reassure themselves of each 
other's tangible existence with tentative caresses until, at the 


moment when they have finally learnt to communicate in the new 
language of their feelings, they must part again. That is why 
prisoners, after their return from the house of meetings, were lost in 
thought, disillusioned, and even more depressed than before the 
longed-for visit. 

Victor Kravchenko, in 7 Chose Freedom, tells the story of a woman 
who, after many attempts and in return for a promise of co- 
operation with the N.K.V.D., was finally given permission to visit 
her husband in a camp in the Urals. Into the small room at the 
guard-house shuffled an old man in filthy rags, and it was only with 
difficulty and after several moments that the young woman re- 
cognised her husband. It is more than likely that he had aged and 
changed, but I cannot believe that he was in rags. I cannot, of 
course, make a categorical statement about conditions in the Ural 
camps, and I can only answer for what I myself saw, heard or lived 
through in a camp near the White Sea. Nevertheless, I believe that 
all forced labour camps throughout Soviet Russia, though they 
differ greatly in various respects, had a common aim, possibly 
imposed upon them from above: they strive at all costs to maintain, 
before free Soviet citizens, the appearance of normal industrial 
enterprises which differ from other sections of the general in- 
dustrial plan only by their employment of prisoners instead of 
ordinary workers, prisoners who are quite understandably paid 
slightly less and treated slightly worse than if they were working of 
their own free will. It is impossible to disguise the physical con- 
dition of prisoners from their visiting relatives, but it is still possible 
to conceal, at least partly, the conditions in which they live. 
In Yercevo, on the day before the visit, the prisoner was made to 
go to the bath-house and to the barber, he gave up his rags in the 
store of old clothing and received only for the three days of the 
visit a clean linen shirt, clean underwear, new wadded trousers and 
jerkin, a cap with ear-flaps in good condition, and boots of the first 
quality; from this last condition were exempt only prisoners who 
had managed to preserve, for just such an occasion, the suit which 
they had worn at the time of their original arrest, or to acquire one, 
usually in a dishonest way, while serving their sentence. As if this 
were not enough, the prisoner was issued with bread and soup 
tickets for three days in advance; he usually ate all the bread by 
himself there and then, to eat his fill just once, and the soup tickets 
he distributed among his friends, relying on the food which would 


be brought by the visitor. When the visit was over, the prisoner had 
to submit all that he had received from his relatives to an inspection 
at the guard-house, then he went straight to the clothing store to 
shed his disguise and take up his true skin once more. These 
regulations were always very strictly enforced, though even here 
there were glaring contradictions which could at once destroy the 
whole effect of this comedy staged for the benefit of free citizens of 
the Soviet Union. On the first morning of a visit the relative could, 
by raising the curtain in the room, catch a glimpse of the brigades 
marching out from the guard-house to work beyond the zone, and 
see the dirty scrofulous shadows wrapped in torn rags held together 
with string, gripping their empty mess-cans and swooning from cold, 
hunger and exhaustion; only an imbecile could have believed that 
the scrubbed, neat man who had been brought to the house of 
meetings the day before in clean underwear and new clothes had 
avoided the fate of the others. This revolting masquerade was 
sometimes comic despite its tragic implication, and a prisoner in his 
holiday outfit was greeted by jeers from the others in the barrack. 
I thought that if someone would fold the hands of these living dead, 
dressed in their tidy suits, over their chests, and force a holy picture 
and a candle between their stiffened fingers, they could be laid out in 
oak coffins, ready for their last journey. Needless to say, the 
prisoners who were forced to take part in this exhibition felt 
awkward in their disguise, as if ashamed and humiliated by the 
thought that they were being made use of as a screen to hide the 
camp's true face for three days. 

The house itself, seen from the road which led to the camp from 
the village, made a pleasant impression. It was built of rough pine 
beams, the gaps filled in with oakum, the roof was laid with good 
tiling, and fortunately the walls were not plastered. We all had 
occasion to curse the plaster with which the barrack walls in the 
camp were covered: water from melted snowdrifts, and urine made 
by prisoners against the barracks at night, disfigured the white walls 
with yellow-grey stains, which looked from a distance like the 
unhealthy pimples of acne on a pale, anaemic face. During the 
summer thaw the thin plaster peeled off the walls, and then we 
walked through the zone without looking to right or left the holes 
corroded in the brittle crust of whitewash by the climatic scurvy 
seemed to remind us that the same process was corrupting our 
bodies. If only because of the contrast, it was pleasant to rest our 


weary eyes by gazing at the house of meetings, and not without 
cause (though its appearance was not the only reason) was it known 
as "the health resort". The door outside the zone, which could be 
used only by the free visitors, was reached by a few solid wooden 
steps; cotton curtains hung in the windows, and long window- 
boxes planted with flowers stood on the window-sills. Every room 
was furnished with two neatly-made beds, a large table, two 
benches, a basin and a water-jug, a clothes-cupboard and an iron 
stove; there was even a lampshade over the electric-light bulb. 
What more could a prisoner, who had lived for years on a common 
bunk in a dirty barrack, desire of this model petit bourgeois dwelling? 
Our dreams of life at liberty were based on that room. 

Every prisoner was given a separate room, but the prison rules 
broke that intimacy brutally by making clear distinctions between 
the privileges of free men and the obligations of prisoners serving a 
sentence of forced labour. The visiting relative was at liberty to 
leave the house at any time of the day and night to go to the village, 
but always alone: the prisoner had to remain in the same room 
during the whole visit, or else, if he so wished, he could return to the 
zone for a few minutes after first being searched at the guard- 
house. In exceptional cases the permission was burdened by an 
additional provision which confined the visit to the daytime: the 
prisoner returned to his barrack in the evening, and came back to 
the house of meetings at dawn (I could never think of a reason for 
this cruelty; some prisoners believed that it was a form of deliberate 
persecution, but this was not confirmed by general practice). In the 
mornings, when the brigades passed the house of meetings on their 
way to work, the curtains in its windows were usually drawn 
slightly aside, and we saw our fellow-prisoners inside with strange, 
free faces. We usually slowed down and dragged our legs in a 
slightly exaggerated manner, as if to show the "people from over 
there" to what life behind barbed wire had brought us. We were 
allowed to give no other sign of recognition, just as we were 
forbidden to wave to passengers on passing trains as we passed by 
the railway tracks (the guards had strict orders to drive their 
brigades into the forest, away from the railway tracks, whenever they 
heard the sound of an approaching train). The prisoners in the 
windows of the house of meetings frequently smiled at us and 
sometimes greeted us by fondly embracing their visitor, as if in this 
simple and touching way they wanted to remind us that they were 


human, with well-dressed relatives, free to touch intimately 
those "from the other side". But more often tears stood in their 
faded eyes, and painful spasms passed through the haggard faces; 
perhaps it was our own wretchedness which thus moved those more 
fortunate prisoners who saw us through the window of a warm, 
clean room, or perhaps it v/as only the thought that tomorrow or 
the day after they themselves would be back in the brigades, hungry 
and cold, marching off for another twelve hours in the forest. 

The situation of those free women who after surmounting 
countless obstacles have at last succeeded in reaching the camp for a 
visit is no more enviable. They feel the boundless suffering of the 
prisoner, without fully understanding it, or being in any way able to 
help; the long years of separation have killed much of their feeling 
for their husbands, and they come to the camp only to warm them, 
during three short days, with the embers of their love the flame 
could not be rekindled from the spark hidden in the warm heart of 
ashes. The camp, distant and barred off from the visitor, yet casts 
its shadowy menace on them. They are not prisoners, but they are 
related to those enemies of the people. Perhaps they would more 
willingly agree to accept the prisoner's burden of hatred and 
suffering than to suffer in silence the humiliating and equivocal 
situation of borderland inhabitants. The camp officials treat them 
politely and correctly, but at the same time with almost undis- 
guised reserve and contempt. How can they show respect to the 
wife or the mother of a wretch who begs for a spoonful of soup, 
rummages in the rubbish heaps, and has long since lost any feeling 
of his own human dignity? In Yercevo village, where every new 
face left no doubt as to its owner's purpose in the town, visitors to 
the camp were cautiously avoided. One prisoner told me that when 
his daughter visited him in the camp she met an old friend, now the 
wife of one of the camp officials, in the village. They greeted each 
other with pleasure, but after a while the official's wife drew back 
anxiously. "What a coincidence, meeting you here! But what are 
you doing in Yercevo?" "Oh," answered the girl, "I've come to 
visit my father. You can imagine how unhappy we are!" and 
added: "Of course, he isn't at all guilty," as if hoping that after 
breaking the ice she would succeed in obtaining some consideration 
for her father in the camp. But the other woman left her coldly, 
saying: "Good, you should write a complaint to Moscow, they will 
look into it there." 


Although, or perhaps because, these visits were so rare and so 
difficult to obtain, they played a large part in the life of the camp. 
I became convinced, while I was still in prison, that if a man has no 
clear end in life and the ending of his sentence and his final release 
were too distant and uncertain to be seriously taken into account 
he must at least have something to anticipate. Letters were so rare, 
and their language so commonplace and restricted, that they had no 
attraction as an object of expectation; only the visits were left to 
the prisoners. They waited for them with anxiety and joyful 
tension, and often reckoned the time of their sentences or their lives 
by those short moments of happiness, or even its very anticipation. 
Those who still had not been informed of a definite date for 
their visits lived on hope; they possessed something to occupy them, 
and perhaps even more, a quiet passion which saved them from 
utter despair, from the fatal consciousness of their aimless existence. 
They fed their hope artificially, wrote requests and applications to 
Moscow, bore the heaviest work manfully like pioneers building 
their own future; in the evenings they talked to their more fortunate 
comrades, repeatedly asking what ways there were of hastening that 
wonderful event; on rest-days they stood outside the house of 
meetings, as if to make sure that their rooms were reserved and only 
awaiting the arrival of the guests, quarrelled among themselves in 
advance over the choice of rooms, and endlessly cleaned and 
darned their best clothes. Lonely prisoners and foreigners were 
naturally in the worst position, but even they were able to draw 
some benefit from the visits, sharing as they did in the happiness 
and expectation of others, or recognising them to be their only 
source of information about life outside, at liberty. 

Men isolated forcibly, or even voluntarily, from the rest of the 
world, idealise everything that occurs beyond the frontiers of their 
solitude. It was touching to hear prisoners, before the expected 
visit, recalling the liberty whose mere taste they were about to enjoy. 
It seemed that never before in their lives had they experienced either 
important events or bitter disappointments. Freedom for them was 
the one, blessed irreplaceable. At liberty one slept, ate and 
worked differently, there the sun was brighter, the snow whiter, and 
the frost less painful. "Remember? Remember?" excited voices 
whispered on the bunks. "I remember, at liberty, I was stupid and 
wouldn't eat brown bread." And another would take up: "I 
wasn't satisfied with Kursk, I wanted Moscow. Just wait till my 


wife comes, I'll tell her what I think of Kursk now, just wait till I tell 
her . . ." These conversations sometimes dragged on till late into 
the night, but they were never heard on bunks where a prisoner who 
had recently returned from a visit lay. The illusion had come face to 
face with the reality, and the illusion always suffered. Whatever the 
reasons for their disappointment whether the freedom, realised 
for three days, had not lived up to its idealised expectation, whether 
it was too short, or whether, fading away like an interrupted dream, 
it had left only fresh emptiness in which they had nothing to wait 
for the prisoners were invariably silent and irritable after visits, to 
say nothing of those whose visits had been transformed into a 
tragic formality of separation and divorce. Krestynski, a joiner 
from the 48th brigade, twice attempted to hang himself after an 
interview with his wife, who had asked him for a divorce and for his 
agreement to place their children in a municipal nursery. I came 
to the conclusion that if hope can often be the only meaning left in 
life, then its realisation may sometimes be an unbearable torment. 

Younger prisoners suffered additional and, at least as far as their 
neighbours on the bunk were concerned, by no means intimate 
sexual anxieties before visits from their wives. Years of heavy 
labour and hunger had undermined their virility, and now, before 
an intimate meeting with an almost strange woman, they felt, 
besides nervous excitement, helpless anger and despair. Several 
times I did hear men boasting of their prowess after a visit, but 
usually these matters were a cause for shame, and respected in 
silence by all prisoners. Even the urkas murmured indignantly 
whenever a guard, who during his night duty at the guard-house 
had relieved his boredom by listening, through the thin partition, to 
the sounds of love from the other side, derisively shared his 
observations with other prisoners in the brigade. Unbridled sexual 
depravity was the rule in the zone, where women were treated 
like prostitutes and love like a visit to the latrine, and where 
pregnant girls from the maternity hut were greeted with coarse 
jokes. Yet the house of meetings, in this pool of filth, degradation 
and cynicism, had become the only haven of whatever emotional 
life memory had brought into the camp from liberty. I remember 
our joy when one of the prisoners received a letter, telling him of the 
birth of a child conceived during a visit from his wife. If that child 
could have been given to us, we would have looked upon it as our 
common child, we would have fed it, going hungry ourselves, and 


passed it from hand to hand, even though there were plenty of brats 
conceived on a barrack bunk. That, for us, was the most important 
difference: they had been conceived on a barrack bunk in the zone, 
not in the house of meetings with a free woman and on clean 
sheets. ... In that way only did life allow us, dead and forgotten 
men, to feel a slight bond with freedom despite our incarceration in 
that earthly tomb. 

What else can I say about our house of meetings? Perhaps only 
that, as a foreigner, I never expected to see anyone there, and 
possibly that is why my observations about the behaviour of my 
fellow-prisoners, whose joys and disappointments I shared only 
involuntarily, are so objective and so indifferent even to pain. 


THE camp hospital was something like a refuge for the ship- 
wrecked. Few prisoners could pass the well-built barrack with large 
windows without sighing inwardly at the thought of two or three 
weeks in a bright ward, on a clean bed, being looked after by a kind, 
comforting nurse and a polite doctor, with other prisoners who 
seemed to be transformed, more human somehow and sympathetic. 
We longed for a visit to the hospital and dreamt of it, at work and 
during the night, although the object of our longing was not the 
short rest which it gave, but rather the return to humanity, the 
transitory, impermanent revocation of our former ideas of life and 
of men which, even a short time before death, restored our self- 
respect and the consciousness of our human dignity. A prisoner 
went to the hospital, as to the house of meetings, to see his re- 
flection in the mirror of the past. And, as from the house of 
meetings, he returned to the barrack more dispirited than before: 
that was the price of his brief return to humanity. 

Legends have been handed down of inspired fanatics who gave 
their lives in a vain quest for even the briefest glimpse of absolute 
beauty, and the desire which made them put their signatures to the 
suicidal bond we regard as the source and spring of humanity's 
ceaseless progress. So prisoners who dared to revive the standards 
and conceptions of their past paid for their shortlived resurrection, 
after leaving the hospital, by an agonising relapse into the slow 
process of death. The most fortunate died in the hospital, and not 
in the mortuary, on their bunks in the barrack or at work; they 
had glimpsed and caught the world's better aspect before they 
finally went out of it. 

Life in a prison camp is bearable only when all criteria, all 
standards of comparison which apply at liberty, have been com- 
pletely obliterated from the prisoner's mind and memory. A new 
arrival in the camp was encouraged by older prisoners with the 
traditional saying: "It's nothing, you'll get used to it." "Getting 
used to it" meant forgetting how he had once thought, how felt, 
whom and why he had loved, what he had disliked, and to what he 



had been attached. From this point of view the perfect prisoner 
does not exist, but there are men who, after several years behind 
barbed wire, can control their memories far better than their 
primitive instincts; a relentless discipline of oblivion has erected an 
impassable barrier between their past and their present. Most 
prisoners, however, are unable to impose this rule upon their minds, 
and seek in memory release from the hideous present. Those who 
force themselves to forget are stronger, and at the same time 
weaker, than the rest. Stronger, because they submit to the laws of 
camp life without hesitation, accepting them subconsciously as 
normal and natural; and yet weaker, because the slightest breach in 
their defences, the most trivial event which stimulates the imagina- 
tion, lets loose a flood of repressed memories which nothing can hold 
back. They submerge brain, heart and body, with greater or lesser 
violence in proportion to the length and depth of their incarceration 
in the sombre dungeons of artificial amnesia. 

People of simple faith found life in the camp somewhat easier to 
accept, for they looked upon it as the natural culmination of their 
previously hard existence and with humbleness in their hearts 
awaited heavenly reward for their patience in suffering. But 
intelligent men, gifted with a richer imagination and a store of 
accumulated experience, were as a rule more vulnerable, and unless 
they were able to arm themselves with a veneer of cynicism, 
helplessly gave themselves up to their memories. It was charac- 
teristic of the camp that the kulaks and the habitual criminal 
prisoners who had fully "got used to it" went to the hospital 
unwillingly, preferring a few days' dispensation from work in the 
barrack, as if afraid that, having once been reminded of liberty, 
they would never be comfortable in slavery again. The others, all 
those who, despite the warnings of instinct, had no desire to forget, 
sought escape in the hospital and welcomed the illness which sent 
them there. When they returned to the barrack afterwards, their 
faces were drawn and shrunk with pain; they had caught a glimpse 
of the past, which had given them delusive hope for the future, and 
then they had been dragged away from the wall surrounding their 

The hospital was the only barrack in the camp, besides the house 
of meetings, which was built and maintained as well as the dwellings 
of free men in Yercevo village. Within, on either side of a wide 
corridor, were wards with two windows and at least eight beds 


each. It was neat and clean everywhere, and this was the more 
striking when one first entered, with the filth of the barracks still 
fresh in one's mind. Only the improvised sleeping-places on the 
passage floor, where the sick had to wait, sometimes as long as 
several days, for a free bed, were peculiar to our hospital; otherwise 
it resembled in every respect a modest but efficient hospital in a 
small provincial town on the Continent. At the end of the corridor 
was a small duty-room for doctors and nurses, where medicines and 
medical instruments were kept in two glass-fronted cupboards 
against the walls; the large table there served in emergencies as an 

The director of the hospital was a free doctor from the village, 
who came to the zone every other day to inspect the sick in the 
medical hut. Three camp doctors Loevenstein, Tatiana Pavlovna, 
and a russified Pole called Zabyelski were directly under his 
orders, and his decision was final in all matters of dispute. The free 
senior doctor was not concerned with dispensations from work or 
recommendations to the hospital, which were given out in the 
medical hut, but only supervised the treatment and decided when a 
patient was ready to leave. This was officially considered to be 
sufficient control over the camp doctors to prevent any possible 
abuse of their authority. The junior doctors, like all the nurses, 
were themselves prisoners, and in theory they could take advantage 
of their positions to improve the lot of others. In practice, how- 
ever, every camp doctor observed the regulations very strictly, for he 
knew that if the slightest infringement were discovered, he would 
immediately be sent back to work in the brigades. The sick were 
freed from work with a temperature of over 100 degrees, and sent to 
the hospital when it rose over 102'2 degrees, besides accidents and 
wounds received at work. The doctors had some opportunity of 
infringing the regulations over the dispensations from work, but 
even there they were afraid of denunciation by their assistants, 
whose only qualifications for this position were frequently their 
contacts with the N.K.V.D., or by the prisoners, whom the Third 
Section sometimes sent to test the doctors* loyalty by attempting to 
bribe them. It was always better to err on the side of strictness; a 
prisoner who was freed from work without the required temperature 
could end the doctor's medical career for good, but no blame was 
attached to the doctor for refusing to give a dispensation, whatever 
the temperature. The explanation of this imposed strictness is very 


simple and even logical: the camp authorities' view was that it 
would have been foolish to interfere with the prisoners when they 
were doing harm to each other, but they had to be prevented from 
helping each other. This attitude would have been reasonable if 
men in slavery tended to help rather than to harm each other; 
unfortunately this condition did not apply to Soviet labour camps. 
Apart from that, labour camp legislation foresaw a certain 
maximum percentage of unproductive sick prisoners (I believe that 
it was five per cent of a camp's total number), which was under no 
circumstances to be exceeded. There were times when the doctor 
could exempt only those who were seriously ill, sending the slightly 
sick out to work with a promise of compensation in the future, so 
that the number of absentees should not formally be called into 
question at the guard-house. 

Hospital treatment for all diseases consisted mainly of a short 
rest and excessive doses of drugs to lower the temperature. The 
camp dispensary was so poorly supplied that the prisoners knew the 
names of the medicines most frequently used, and asked for them 
without waiting for the doctor's diagnosis. It was also clear that the 
doctors' efforts, in accordance with the secret instructions of the 
camp authorities (of which I learnt from one of my medical friends), 
aimed at the speedy recovery only of prisoners who had not 
completely lost the capacity to work. For old men, for prisoners 
with incurable heart disease, protracted pylagra, or tuberculosis 
the hospital was only a temporary resting-place before death or 
removal to the mortuary. The doctors' duty in such cases was to 
see that incurable patients should, after a short rest, be strong 
enough to walk on their own feet to the adjoining mortuary, 
releasing a badly-needed bed in the hospital. No attempt was made 
to cure complete physical exhaustion, various forms of hunger 
dementia, night-blindness, and advanced vitamin deficiency which 
resulted in liberation of the body and loss of hair and teeth these 
qualified directly for the mortuary. Thus only a prisoner who was 
still strong enough to be regenerated by a short rest alone could be 
certain that his week or two in hospital would be more than just an 
escape from the reality of the camp into dreams of the past. 

Conditions in the hospital, by comparison with those in the rest 
of the camp, verged on unbelievable luxury. Every patient was sent 
to the bath-house before going into hospital; on entering the ward 
he gave up his rags and received fresh linen, and was shown to a bed 


made with clean sheets and flanked by a small bedside table. What- 
ever his norm had been in the zone, here he invariably received the 
third-cauldron ration, as well as some raw vegetables for vitamin 
deficiency and a large daily portion of white bread; those suffering 
from pylagra were also given two lumps of sugar and one lump of 
margarine of the same size. It was all so unusual and so incredible 
that prisoners who came to the hospital to visit sick friends would 
take off their caps at the door, and did not dare to step inside until 
encouraged by a nurse's polite invitation. 

It is impossible to write of Soviet labour camps without paying 
tribute to the kindness and helpfulness of the hospital nurses. 
Perhaps because, at least in the daytime, they lived in more human 
conditions, although they returned to the barracks at night, or 
because the hospital was the only place in the camp where it was 
still possible to help human suffering whatever the reason, the 
nurses treated us with such tenderness and devotion that we looked 
upon them as beings from another world, whom only some absurd 
trick of fate had forced to live with us and share all the hardships of 
our slavery. The human atmosphere of the hospital also affected 
free men. The camp chief, Samsonov, always exchanged a few 
words with each patient during his inspections, and the severe voice 
of Yegorov, the free head doctor (it was said that he too had once 
been a prisoner) became warm and gentle whenever he stopped by a 
sick man's bed. 

My own observation of the hospital in Yercevo, as well as the 
stories and recollections of other prisoners, have led me to the 
conclusion that a definite "hospital cult" must exist in Soviet 
Russia. Even in the worst labour camps, even during the "pioneer" 
period when the proizvol flourished, the hospitals were as if 
excluded from the system of Soviet slavery and retained a different 
character. There was something incomprehensible in the fact that 
the moment a prisoner left the hospital he became a prisoner again, 
but as long as he had been lying motionless in a clean bed all the 
rights of a human being, though always with the exception of 
freedom, had been accorded to him. For a man unaccustomed to 
the violent contrasts of Soviet life, camp hospitals seemed like 
churches which offer sanctuary from an all-powerful Inquisition; to 
break the code of behaviour which prevailed in them was equivalent 


almost to desecration; and although man was not worshipped in 
them, he was at least respected within the limits which allow him to 
distinguish punishment from torture in prisons. 

It is not surprising, then, that the prisoners strove by every 
possible means to obtain admission to the hospital. During the 
pioneer period this was most frequently procured by self- 
mutilation at work, and I saw many prisoners with fingers missing 
from one or both hands ; Dimka paid for three months in Nyandoma 
hospital in 1937 with his wooden right leg, although he also had it 
to thank for the comfortable job of a barrack orderly. In 1940 the 
camp authorities, shocked by the high number of casualties, 
guessed the cause, and from that time "accidents at work", unless 
confirmed by a detailed and plausible account of the circumstances, 
were included in the category of "sabotage", and "self-inflicted 
wounds" were punished with an additional sentence of ten years. 
Even so, in December 1941, 1 saw a young prisoner, who two days 
before had been discharged from the hospital despite his protests 
and pleading, being brought back to the zone from the forest 
without a foot. 

When self-mutilation was prohibited, other ways were found of 
ensuring a visit to hospital. At our low level of physical resistance a 
little dirt, rubbed into a small scratch, resulted in blood-poisoning, 
which sometimes caused only a slight fever, but occasionally sent the 
temperature up to the required degree. A method popular among 
the urkas was the injection of melted soap into the penis; the 
ejaculations it produced simulated venereal disease, and they were 
freed from work at least during the period when they were under 
observation. I myself, having one day become so hot at work that 
my shirt stuck to my sweaty body, stripped to the waist in a 
temperature of thirty-five degrees below freezing point. The next 
day it was in February, 1941 I was sent to the hospital for two 

In the large ward a nurse showed me to my bed, between the 
German prisoner S. and the Russian film actor Mikhail Stepano- 
vich W. During the first few days we lay side by side without 
exchanging a word. The hospital day dragged slowly on, and the 
nights, after I had satisfied my great need of sleep, had in them 
something of life outside the laws of time. I lay back staring at the 
ceiling or at the frosted window-panes, beyond which extended the 
unfathomable darkness. I tried to prevent myself from falling 


asleep, in order to prolong my stay in the hospital by wakefulness. 
I could now realise, with an intensity which bordered on pain and 
joy at the same time, the whole degradation and misery of prison 
life. But simultaneously I underwent a resurrection in the silence 
and the solitude, and I dreamt of being transferred to a single, 
solitary prison cell. After midnight, Nurse Eugenia Fyodorovna 
walked round all the wards and, without switching on the lights, laid 
a cool hand on every patient's forehead. I would pretend to be 
asleep in order to avoid her questions, though I remember once 
seizing her hand without a word and putting it to my fever-parched 
lips. She looked at me with astonishment and instinctive fear, 
though from that time she greeted me with a smile whenever she 
came into our ward. The hospital was the only place, in camp and 
prison alike, where the light was extinguished at night. And it was 
there, in the darkness, that I realised for the first time in my life that 
in man's whole life only solitude can bring him absolute inward 
peace and restore his individuality. Only in all-embracing loneli- 
ness, in darkness which conceals the outlines of the external world, 
is it possible to know that one is oneself, to feel that individuality 
emerging, until one reaches the stage of doubt when one becomes 
conscious of one's insignificance in the extent of the universe which 
grows in one's conception to overwhelming dimensions. If this 
condition savours of mysticism, if it forces one into the arms of 
religion, then I certainly discovered religion, and I prayed blas- 
phemously: "O God, give me solitude, for I hate all men." The 
resurrection of my personal individuality was also the extinction of 
all that bound me to other people. I forgot the camp, forgot the 
prisoners outside, forgot my family and my friends; I thought only 
of myself. I was dying, then, during my resurrection. Every day I 
thought with increasing hatred of the prisoner who would take my 
place in the hospital. I had pushed open my tombstone, only to 
emerge into a barren desert it was a bitter triumph. Those 
moments when the night laid the cool rose of darkness on my 
parched lips, when in the silence I heard the beating of my own 
heart pacing out infinity, gave me back the certainty of my own 
existence, and deprived me too of my respect for the existence of 
others. I was like a blind man who miraculously regains his sight 
only to find himself in an emptiness full of mirrors, which reflect 
only his own solitude. 
This psychological condition lasted as long as my temperature 


was very high about five days. Afterwards I regained my strength 
sufficiently to sit up in bed and attempt to talk with my neighbours. 
The more sociable of the two was Mikhail Stepanovich W., a 
wonderful old man with a pointed white beard and a shaved head, 
who before his imprisonment had played the parts of Tsarist 
boyars in Soviet historical films. The popularity which all film 
actors, including the extras and the bit players, enjoy in Russia 
proved useful to him in the cainp, and he was made night-watchman 
in one of the stores at the food supply centre, and allowed to leave 
the zone without a guard, after only a year's work in the forest. He 
lived quite comfortably, for free officials at the supply centre would 
frequently press a cigarette or a piece of bread into his hand, and he 
seemed to be completely satisfied with his lot. He talked about 
himself in a deep, slightly mannered voice, so typical of men who 
have approached acting, however vaguely. I have described him 
here rather broadly, for he was the only man that I met in the camp 
who looked upon everything that he had suffered since the moment 
of his arrest as a completely natural sequence of events. He had the 
humility of a man brought up to obey and respect all authority; his 
was the social discipline of a model citizen. He was arrested in 1937 
because he had unduly emphasised the nobility of one of the boyars 
who served Ivan the Terrible; he told me this without the slightest 
smile, and his expression was as serious as if he had committed a 
real crime. 'That's how it is, Gustav Yosifovich," he would say, 
"that's how it must be." I tried to explain the stupidity, the in- 
humanity of his sentence and of the system which had imprisoned 
him fora bad performance, but he listened absent-mindedly, looking 
gently in front of him and stroking his silky beard. He was con- 
vinced that the highest distinction which an honest man can attain 
is approval in the eyes of the authorities, and the greatest shame 
the dissatisfaction of his superiors. He was indifferent to the fate 
of his fellow-prisoners, saying: "They must have deserved it," 
though sometimes he would unexpectedly add, with pain in his 
voice: "Poor souls, those poor souls." I believe that he was of 
that type of citizen who first, with a spontaneity which excludes all 
suspicion of hypocrisy, welcomes the overthrow of tyranny, but 
who will not dare to raise a hand against it himself as long as it is 
firmly established in its authority. Fundamentally, two dominant 
feelings lay in him side by side: deep-seated rebellion against 
injustice, and an instinctive conviction that the definition of the 


standards of justice and law is invariably the prerogative of those 
who rule. 

Mikhail Stepanovich was ashamed of the offence which had 
earned him his sentence, although I believe that at heart he regarded 
it as rather ridiculous. He had something of the "old order" in him 
that aroused my sympathy and affection, some vestigial and now 
anachronistic conviction that prison was a method of meting out 
well-deserved punishment and prisoners were proved criminals. 
His brain could not conceive of a situation where an innocent man 
is deprived of his freedom. Gradually he came to believe in his own 
guilt, or at least he pretended to believe in it; he spent hours 
convincing us that he had unintentionally read too much into his 
part, and by an actor's over-playing misrepresented the whole 
tendency of the film. There was nothing I could do but listen to him 
seriously, and sympathise with him in his tragic error. Fortunately, 
he soon returned to good health, and two days before leaving the 
hospital he was posturing dramatically in the middle of the ward 
with a hospital cloak thrown over his shirt, reciting to us the 
verses of his beloved Pushkin. I can still remember a line from 
Pushkin's "Song of Oleg" which he would repeat frequently, 
emphasising each word with theatrical intensity: 

"O tell me, prophet, darling of the gods, what life has in store for 
me . . ." 

My other neighbour, the German S., was usually silent, if only 
because he spoke Russian very badly. Although he was not a 
communist, he had come to Baku in 1934 as an oil-drilling expert, 
under the provisions of an agreement whereby technicians from all 
branches of industry were lent to Soviet Russia by Germany. He 
was arrested in 1937 and accused of espionage. Of all the prisoners 
that I knew in the camp who had been sentenced for various 
improbable crimes S. was the only one in whose guilt I was ready 
to believe. He was one of those men who call attention to them- 
selves and awaken suspicion by their very appearance and be- 
haviour. In a pale face, ravaged by years of prison and illness, Ms 
eyes blazed contempt for his surroundings and revealed also the 
penetrating intelligence of a bloodhound. His thin, compressed lips 
expressed only hatred, cruelty and the ferocity of a trapped animal. 
He asked everyone short, pointed questions which struck immedi- 
ately at the heart of the matter, and after a few days I was certain 
that he knew more about each of us than the N.K.V.D. He treated 


Mikhail Stepanovich with undisguised disdain, and could hardly 
control his anger when listening to the naive stories about the ill- 
fated film; "Gott wie gross ist dein Tiergarten" he once whispered 
to himself, lifting up to heaven his thin, emaciated arms. 

S. was suffering from pylagra; he had been in the hospital for 
two months when I met him, and I am certain that, but for the 
Russo-German pact of 1939 and the fact that he was no mere 
German born in Russia but, nominally at least, a full German 
citizen, he would have been allowed to die long before then. Once 
he leaned over to me and whispered : "In half a year's time the war 
will break out and then these bastards will be made to pay for every- 
thing." The war broke out rather earlier, but it was S. who paid 
first. On June 23rd, although he was in the last stages of the disease, 
he was thrown out of the hospital without even a medical in- 
spection, and sent with a detachment of Germans, dismissed from 
their posts in the camp offices, to the penal camp of the Second 
Alexeyevka. I saw him at the guard-house when the transport was 
being formed, as he stood, supported by two Volga Germans, in 
torn rags, his boots carelessly tied with string, shivering with cold, 
pale and frightened, all his old self-assurance and contemptuous 
superiority vanished. Advanced pylagra, besides its physical effects 
the loss of hair and teeth and putrefaction of the flesh brings 
about psychological changes: depression, melancholia, a continual 
state of terror and persecution mania. S. looked like a heap of 
human scraps hastily collected and tied with rags, and I could have 
sworn that if his companions had taken their hands from under his 
arms, he would simply have disintegrated before our eyes. Later 
I learnt that he never even reached the Second Alexeyevka. The 
transport, driven on foot over the distance of twelve miles, aban- 
doned him in the forest after five miles' march, together with an old 
German from the camp accountants' office and one of the escorting 
guards. Neither of the Germans were ever seen again, but the 
other prisoners of the convoy later asserted in the Second 
Alexeyevka that, after they had walked another half-mile, they 
heard two consecutive single shots, which echoed through the forest 
like a sudden thunderclap. . . . 

There were, and doubtless still are, camps where certain 
exceptional privileges accompanied the position of a doctor. 


Apart from the possibility of taking bribes for dispensation from 
work, the camp doctors had free entry to the hospital kitchen and to 
the dispensary. Every woman in the camp desired nothing more 
than to be admitted to hospital, eat a little better than the other 
patients and in return visit the doctor at night in the small duty- 
room; every urka, who had acquired a small fortune by robbing the 
politicals was ready to pay the highest price for a drop of alcohol 
from the dispensary, a little valerian which was made into spirit 
with dried bread, or some chloralhydrate which, taking the place of 
hashish, opium and morphine, could give the camp drug-addicts a 
short period of numbness. In such camps the doctors were a 
social dlite unequalled in its style of life, its opportunities and even 
its orgies, and the efficiency of a camp medical mafia was improved 
by the participation of the free head doctor, who usually had himself 
been a prisoner, and who appropriated a major share of the 

Among the free men employed in the administration of labour 
camps there were many former prisoners: mostly doctors, engineers 
and clerks who, when their terms of imprisonment ran out, at once 
received either a second sentence or a proposal to stay in the camp 
and take up well-paid duties, with which as a rule went two- or three- 
roomed flats in the near-by village. This form of compromise was 
of advantage to both sides, and only rarely was it rejected by the 
prisoner. After many years of life in the camp the average prisoner 
becomes so unaccustomed to the idea of liberty that he begins to 
dread the prospect of having again to live "at liberty" in a state 
of unceasing watchfulness, followed and spied on by friends, 
relatives and colleagues, exposed to suspicion by the very fact that 
he has just finished a prison sentence. The camp, too, has to some 
extent become his second life; he is familiar with its laws and its 
customs, he moves freely about the zone and knows how to avoid 
danger; the years behind barbed wire have blunted his imagina- 
tion, and his conception of freedom is based not so much on his 
native Kiev or Leningrad, but simply on the open plain beyond the 
zone and the small village where lights gleam in the evenings and 
children play in the snow during the day. If no one is waiting for 
him outside, if during those prison years his family has abandoned 
him, then the decision is easy and he does not hesitate. The camp 
gains a conscientious worker, well acquainted with the life and 
habits of prisoners, loyal because his own prison experiences have 


made him wiser, now chained for ever to his galley. The N.K.V.D. 
also has its reasons for approving these contracts of employment 
between the victim and his persecutors: the practice facilitates the 
localisation of the camp infection within a radius of several miles, 
provides them with experienced informers, and gives the camp the 
appearance of a normal corrective institution, in which every 
prisoner can see one of his former companions being rewarded for 
years of hard work with freedom and the status of a full citizen of 
the Soviet Union. 

But for us, looking at it from a different position, the presence of 
free ex-prisoners in the camp was a painful reminder that there was 
no escape from it at any time. The whole world suddenly shrank 
to the limits of the camp. We looked at these former prisoners with 
the same emotion as a Catholic would experience if he suddenly, 
with his own eyes, beheld indisputable proof that life beyond 
the grave differs in no respect from his present existence: that it, 
too, is an unbroken sequence of suffering, torment and disappoint- 
ment. And yet, with the exception of foreigners, who could 
never accustom themselves to the idea of permanent slavery, any 
prisoner, faced with the necessity of choice between a return to full 
liberty and the position of a free camp official, would break down 
before the threat of a return to the past and choose the half- 
freedom which promised less than the other but also held less 
danger of disappointment. 

Contrary to expectation, former prisoners treated us with even 
greater ruthlessness and severity than the truly genuinely free 
officials. Whether it was their own past which they saw and hated 
in the prisoners, whether they wanted to gain the confidence of 
their superiors by this exaggerated conscientiousness, or whether 
the long years spent in the camp had instilled a habit of cynicism 
and cruelty into them enough to say that we would in vain have 
tried to seek any consideration from those who had once shared our 
bunks. There was, however, one aspect of camp life in which these 
ex-prisoners showed not only leniency, but also their own willing- 
ness and aptitude: in collusion with the brigadiers and camp 
doctors, they took advantage of every opportunity to squeeze all 
possible profit from their privileged positions. All forms of 
bribery depended on the co-operation of former prisoners: the 
universal toufta in the calculation of norms was possible only if 
the foreman was one; the rest in hospital could be prolonged if the 


senior doctor was one. Similarly the camp doctors' organisations, 
drawing great profits from bribes and the sale of alcohol sub- 
stitutes to the urkas and turning the women's wards into private 
harems, depended on the tacit approval of the free doctor, who in 
his own prison days had learnt to look upon the camp as the rule of 
lawlessness sanctified by the right of the strongest. 

All this, however, could not be said of Yegorov, our free doctor, 
who in 1939 had finished an eight-year sentence in Krouglitza 
camp section, and was then appointed director of the hospital in 
Yercevo, the central section of the Kargopol camp. Yegorov tall, 
slim, taciturn, with a hard face, a cold glance and slightly nervous 
movements was either very discreet or else incorruptible. He was 
never seen to eat or drink in the zone, treated the camp doctors 
distantly and the patients severely but with occasional sympathy 
and tenderness. Whenever he appeared on the road leading to the 
hospital, in his long fur greatcoat, his tall lambs'-wool cap and 
his leather gaiters with metal press-buttons, the duty doctor 
hastily checked the temperature charts, and Eugenia Fyodorovna 
paled with emotion. It was said that she was Yegorov's only link 
with his past as a prisoner, for he had known her before his release 
from Krouglitza, where he had been her camp husband, and that he 
had accepted his present position only on condition that she was 
transferred to Yercevo. Whatever the true story was, Mikhail 
Stepanovich told me that she had arrived with a transport from 
Krouglitza two months after Yegorov's appointment, and had been 
directed straight to our hospital. 

Their liaison was something unusual in the camp, for it was based 
on genuine feeling, even on loyalty. A free official could have any 
woman prisoner that he fancied for a slice of bread, but it was 
unthinkable that he should dare or even wish to give this momentary 
transaction a permanent character. Women came and went like the 
succeeding waves of transports, and what invariably remained was 
the possibility of possessing them without the slightest difficulty. A 
young and unmarried official could not even count and retain in his 
memory all the faces and bodies which had passed through his small 
wooden office in the zone. But in the case of Yegorov love, or at 
least its primitive form, played a part, and though the camp 
authorities, the prisoners in the zone and the prisoners working in 
the hospital had no doubt as to the nature of the relationship 
between these two people, yet Yegorov and Eugenia Fyodorovna 


behaved as if privacy and discretion were necessary to make their 
feelings permanent. 

Eugenia Fyodorovna would sometimes come into our ward in the 
evenings and, sitting down on the old actor's bed, talk to us about 
herself. Her father was Russian, her mother an Uzbek; she herself 
was quite exceptionally lovely her face was small and olive- 
skinned, her eyes beautiful by their sadness, her hair combed back 
and fastened behind in an old-fashioned bun; although she must 
have been about thirty, she had preserved in her figure and her 
movements the youth and freshness of a schoolgirl. She had studied 
medicine at Tashkent University until 1936, when she was arrested 
for "nationalist deviation". She did not really know of what her 
deviation had consisted, but from her remarks and her freely- 
expressed opinions I gathered that she had objected to the Russi- 
fication of Uzbekistan, although through her father she was 
Russian and only through her mother could she feel any distant 
emotional bond with her adopted Asiatic country. Her opinions 
were an odd mixture of European progressiveness and Asiatic 
conservatism: she claimed to believe in free love, freedom of 
behaviour in marital relations, but she would not allow a word to be 
said against the traditional subjection of women in Central Asia. 
She never mentioned Yegorov while she talked to us; once only, 
when she was describing her hard beginnings in Krouglitza, she 
betrayed herself unintentionally by telling us that when she was at 
the end of her endurance, our doctor, then still a prisoner, saved her 
from further work in the forest and obtained a position in the 
medical hut for her. Her tone as she said this led me to believe that 
the mystery surrounding her relationship with Yegorov was caused 
not only by a need for privacy: I felt that Eugenia Fyodorovna 
hated free men, and that she was in some way ashamed of her 
infringement of prison solidarity. She always tried to behave with 
perfect indifference in Yegorov's presence, but whenever she walked 
into the ward after she had spent a few hours in his room, she 
avoided our looks, lowering her swollen eyelids over her heavy eyes. 
It appeared, then d that Yegorov loved her because he had once been 
a prisoner and did not want to, or perhaps could not, forget it; if 
she returned his feeling, it was from the same motives. "It can't 
last for ever," I would often say to Mikhail Stepanovich. "It 
must be humiliating for her. Yegorov visits her like a prostitute, 
and then returns beyond the zone to another, free life." 


A month after I had left the hospital I went to call on Eugenia 
Fyodorovna on one of the days when Yegorov was not coming to 
the zone, and found her with Sergei K., an engineering student 
from Leningrad, who had been arrested in 1934 in connection with 
the assassination of Kirov, then released before time in 1936, and re- 
arrested in 1937. He was sitting with Eugenia Fyodorovna on a 
small couch used for the examination of patients, and they were 
looking at each other in a way which excluded all doubt. In her 
voice, previously so controlled and determined, there was now a 
tremor of boundless devotion, and her burning eyes showed a 
happiness which is seldom seen in the hard faces of prisoners. After 
that, I used to see them together in the zone on summer evenings; 
Sergei was said to be "running after her with his mess-can, out 
for what he can get," but I saw it only as love, the purest love which 
I had seen in the camp. I was not the only one, for Mikhail 
Stepanovich described the change which had occurred in the 
behaviour and appearance of our nurse with the word "resur- 
rection". This must have been an exaggeration, though in one 
respect it was accurate enough: rather than a return to life in the 
silence of the hospital ward, the word "resurrection" described her 
return to an emotional independence, a return so violent that she 
was willing to risk her life for it. There was no doubt that one word 
from Yegorov was sufficient to place Eugenia Fyodorovna in the 
ranks of a forest brigade, lining up for the morning roll-call with the 

Yegorov, however, did not seem to realise what was happening 
behind his back. As before, he came to the zone every other 
morning and, as before, he walked slowly back to the village in the 
evening. And although there was nothing which could cause me to 
sympathise with him, yet from sheer perversity, or by some 
emotional intuition, I felt that I was on his side in this quiet drama. 
It seemed to me that he was suffering not only the loss of the 
woman whom he loved, but also a break with the camp to which he 
had, in such a curious way, become attached. It was said that his 
wife bad left him after five years of his sentence had passed. Since 
then, everything that still bound him to life had become centred on 
the road leading from Yercevo-town, across the wires, to Yercevo- 
camp. Could he, who seemed to be fascinated by his slavery, 
tied like a dog to the spot where he had spent the hardest eight 
years of his life, could he ever have lived in true freedom again? 


Towards the end of the summer Sergei was quite unexpectedly 
included in a transport for the Pechora camp a sign that Yegorov 
was fighting back. But the next day Eugenia Fyodorovna asked 
to be transferred from Kargopol to another camp, no matter which 
a sign that she had no intention of giving in. Her application 
was refused, but even so Yegorov stopped coming to the zone soon 
afterwards. I heard that he had asked for leave and had left to work 
in another camp, but no one knew anything certain about it. We 
never saw him again, and in January 1942 Eugenia Fyodorovna 
died giving "birth to her lover's child, paying with her life for her 
short resurrection. 


MONTH after month passed and we worked every day without a 
break, deceived by the hope that we should soon be given a "rest- 
day". According to regulations, prisoners were entitled to one 
whole day's rest for every ten days' work. But in practice it tran- 
spired that even a monthly day off threatened to lower the camp's 
production output, and it had therefore become customary to 
announce ceremoniously the reward of a rest-day whenever the 
camp had surpassed its production plan for the one particular 
quarter. In quite .exceptional cases the rest-day was given on the 
basis of the average monthly output, but only if that was high 
enough to exclude the possibility of a sudden falling-off in the 
following two months, which would have lowered the output for the 
quarter. Naturally, we had no opportunity to inspect the output 
figures or the production plan, so that this convention was a fiction 
which in fact put us entirely at the mercy of the camp authorities. 
As in many other cases, the camp authorities followed the spirit 
rather than the letter of the instructions from the Central Office of 
Camp Administration in Moscow (GULAG), and usurped for them- 
selves the right of settling administrative details. The demands 
made on the camps by GULAG and by the industrial trusts which 
placed orders with it according to the intake of slave labour were 
so high that they turned all regulations for the administration of the 
camps into so much waste paper. I have heard of camps with a 
rest-day once in every three or four weeks; during the whole year 
and a half which I spent in Yercevo we had only ten of them, one 
as in all Soviet camps without exception on May 1st; but I have 
never met a prisoner who could boast that in his camp the brigades 
remained in the zone on one day in every ten. 

This system had its good and bad aspects. The prisoners were 
near complete exhaustion, but then all the greater was the excite- 
ment with which they waited for the short day of rest. In my 
opinion the utter boredom of life in slavery is usually under- 
estimated; this boredom is so all-embracing and so hopeless that 
every variation in our lives increased in importance the longer we 



had to wait for it. We were free every day to expect the pro- 
clamation of a rest-day, but when it finally came, and passed more 
quickly than we could have thought possible while waiting for it, 
our lives again became so empty, so futile, that we needed some 
fresh hope to fill them. The first few weeks after a rest-day were 
always the hardest to bear, for they followed too soon after some- 
thing that was already in the past, and could not yet contain the 
promise of the future. How painful is. the discovery that the object 
of our longings and expectations is trivial and insignificant when 
it is at last realised. It is better to wait for something quite un- 
attainable than to know that one has realised only the shadow of 
one's dreams. Several times I saw prisoners just after they had 
received rare food parcels from home: they placed a tiny scrap of 
pork fat on a piece of black bread and, munching the bread slowly, 
pushed the fat away farther from their mouths, so as to avoid 
touching it even with their teeth the last bite was the realisation, 
but the real joy came from the artificially prolonged moments of 
expectation. It was the same with the rest-days, and indeed with 
everything which was worth waiting for in the camp. 

This aspect of a prisoner's psychology must have been a source 
of great profit to the camp administration. By postponing the rest- 
day they increased its value, saved time and spared themselves the 
expense of an unproductive day, and redoubled the prisoners' 
efforts at work in pursuit of the highest limit of that mythical 
production plan. All rulers who have little to offer their subjects 
should start by depriving them of everything, and every small 
favour that they grant afterwards will become the most generous of 
concessions. If one day the camp authorities had suddenly an- 
nounced that we were returning to a biblical week, with six days of 
work and one of rest, we would probably have agreed that Soviet 
labour camps were the embodiment of our highest conceptions of 
the humane treatment of prisoners; but the next day, under better 
conditions, we would just as probably have rebelled against 
imprisonment itself. 

We usually heard on the evening before the great day, at the 
guard-house or from our brigadiers, that a whole twenty-four hours 
of rest was before us. The prisoners walked to the kitchen with a 
livelier step, greeted each other warmly on the way, made appoint- 
ments for the next day, and became suddenly more human and 
friendly. By eight o'clock the zone had assumed an almost festive 


aspect. On the paths, in front of the kitchen, and all over the small 
square before the guard-house, animated groups were talking, and 
from some barracks came the first sounds of singing, of accordions, 
mouth-organs and guitars. Musical instruments were the most 
precious and the most sought-after objects in the camp. The 
Russians love music quite differently from Europeans; for them it is 
not a mere distraction, or even an artistic experience, but a reality 
more real than life itself. I often saw prisoners playing their 
instruments, plucking the strings of a guitar, delicately pressing the 
keys of an accordion, drinking in music from a mouth-organ hidden 
in the grasp of both hands full of great sadness, as if they were 
exploring the most painful places of their souls. Never has the 
word "soul" seemed so understandable and so natural to me as 
when I heard their awkward, hastily improvised compositions, and 
saw other prisoners lying on the bunks, staring vacantly into space 
and listening with religious concentration. The surrounding silence 
seemed to emphasise the power of that music and the emptiness in 
which it resounded like the sharp, sorrowful tones of a shepherd's 
pipe on a deserted mountainside. The player became one with his 
instrument, he pressed it hard to his chest, stroked it with his hands 
and, hanging his head reflectively, gazed with misty despair at the 
inanimate object which, at one dexterous touch, spoke and ex- 
pressed for him all that he could never put into words. Sometimes 
these musicians were asked to stop: "It tears one's soul." And 
then immediately a guitar or an accordion would break out into the 
familiar strains of a Ukrainian ballad or a prison song. Various 
voices joined in with increasing confidence, and soon the whole 
barrack was full of the sound of singing, sending out into the 
darkness strange verses about the prisoner who "burst into tears' 5 
on his way to work, or the men who met at night to "elect a secret 
committee", or that prisoner who at the New Year greeted his 
friends from "the darkness of OGPU dungeons, which move men 
to tears and to laughter". 

The atmosphere of excitement continued in the zone and the 
barracks until midnight. We never counted our holiday as beginning 
on the previous evening; that was only a form of restful pre- 
paration for the day itself, which would follow with all the tried 
excellence of a strict ritual of activities, distractions and small 
pleasures. The ceremonious observance of the rest-day ritual was 
significant, for it was the only day which, except for a few hours in 


the morning, we were free to plan and spend according to our 
private desires and inclinations. No prisoner ever welcomed a day 
when he was dispensed from work by the doctor so much, for 
then he was enjoying an individual privilege, not sharing the 
common gladness. Despite everything that they had suffered and 
experienced, it is evident that the instinct of fairness and justice 
was more deep-seated in the prisoners than in those who had herded 
them behind barbed wire in the name of justice: even this one day's 
peace from the inhuman struggle for self-preservation was sufficient 

to bring it out. 

* * * * * 

The prisoners talked until late into the night, lying or sitting on 
the bunks, and some even sat round the tables with their mugs of 
hot water, giving to their conversations a happy, domestic atmo- 
sphere. At every step, in every corner of the barrack, the ap- 
proaching holiday could be sensed. I could never understand how 
so much politeness suddenly appeared from under the shell of 
indifference and mutual hatred. As they talked, the men showed 
each other so much courtesy and friendliness that, looking at them, 
I could almost forget that I was in prison. There was a stench of 
bad breath and sweat in the barrack, clouds of steam seeped 
in from the door and the faces seemed to blur in the murky light, 
but despite all this there was so much life and happy excitement 
there, so much hope and feeling ... It was impossible not to 
be moved when, returning to their own barracks or settling down 
to sleep, the prisoners left each other with a gentle and sincere 
"good-night". Good-night, good-night, excited voices whispered 
all around, sleep well, tomorrow is our holiday, tomorrow is a day 
of rest . . . 

The next morning we were woken a little later than usual, and 
after breakfast we returned to the barracks to prepare for the 
search. That was the only event which disturbed the peace of our 
rest-day. Three junior officers of the camp garrison visited each 
barrack; one stood in the door, the other two walked inside and 
herded us out. In the door-way every prisoner spread out all his 
personal possessions, opened his box, and helped to shake out his 
palliasse (if, during many years in the camp, he had managed to 
make one with rags and straw), then gathered up everything that 
had been inspected and went outside. Meanwhile, in the empty 
barrack, the other two officers were tapping all the bunks and 


walls, looking under loose planks, inspecting the vertical beams, 
overturning tables, benches and empty buckets. We had to wait in 
the snow for two or three hours while they searched, but I seldom 
heard prisoners complaining about it: to most of us it seemed a 
natural procedure, rather like a spring cleaning. The guards were 
looking for sharp instruments, knives, razors, small objects of 
personal use, crucifixes, rings, books other than from the camp 
library, all, in fact, that every prisoner should have given up in 
prison during the first search after his arrest. Despite their 
thoroughness, it was always possible to hide such objects even 
during many years; if they were found the officers confiscated them, 
though no one was punished. When the search was over, and we 
were allowed to go back into the barrack, there was little time left to 
tidy it again before lunch, which for the majority of prisoners 
consisted of hot water. This was really the beginning of the holiday, 
for the rest of the day belonged exclusively to us. Time sped 
incomparably quicker in the zone than it did at work. 

One of the greatest attractions of the rest-day was the fact that 
every prisoner was free to spend it differently, individually. With 
the exception of those who'were too tired to move from their bunks 
even on that free afternoon, each one of us observed his personal 
ritual, which was so invariable that one could almost infallibly say 
who was where and what he was doing at every hour of this 
exceptional day. 

After the midday hot water I usually walked over to the camp 
shop, a small hut by the guard-house. Only on very rare occasions, 
once in every few months, stakhanovites like myself, who had the 
exclusive use of the shop, could purchase, at a nominal price, 
a length of horse sausage and a pound of bread; nevertheless, 
the shop was open every evening and during the whole of the rest- 
day. For us it was a comedy in a small theatre without props. The 
dark little room was always crowded, and Kuzma, the lame old 
"shopkeeper", stood behind the counter smiling politely, half 
turned towards the empty shelves which he had decorated with a 
whole collection of boxes, tins and bottles, all empty. Standing 
there in the close air and the tobacco smoke, we talked, as if we 
were meeting in a village wine-shop after Sunday-morning service, 
discussing the weather, the work, the news from other camp 
sections, our favourite dishes and the price of alcohol. We would 
ask Kuzma about the contents of the empty boxes, and he answered 


gravely, limping along the counter, talking to us, welcoming and 
greeting each prisoner. He knew us all by name, and it was part of 
his duties to exchange a few pleasant words with every one of us. 
The friendliness and conviviality were a convention, seldom 
exposed by a sudden burst of laughter and proving how strong is 
the need for theatrical artificiality, even among men who in their 
limited lives can find few subjects fit to be imitated by art. Our 
comedy contained also some subconscious masochism, but, for an 
unknown reason, its effect on us was encouraging and reviving. 
After two hours of conversation, jokes, greetings, questions and 
replies shouted across the room, we began to lose our sense of 
reality, and little was needed to make us start clinking empty 
glasses and stumbling out into the zone with a hesitating step at 
the peak of excitement our conversations took on the sharp and 
belligerent accents of a drunken brawl. I usually left the shop late 
in the afternoon. That comedy was not a fantastic fiction but, on 
the contrary, a substitute for life down to its smallest details. 

It was twilight in the zone. Before the barracks stood small 
groups of prisoners, talking in low voices. The young men moved 
off towards the women's barrack to call out girls whom they knew. 
Couples passed on the paths, there was laughter everywhere, 
prisoners stopped on their way to exchange a few words with others 
and invite them to their barracks. The evening sky hung over the 
camp like an opaque membrane, and from the direction of the 
forest blew a small blizzard, carrying whirls of snow which it swept 
into undulating drifts. On the horizon the first lights were being lit 
in the village. Sometimes we stopped by the guard-house, looking 
at them without a word, lost in thoughts of that other world which 
lived its own life, observed all the unchangeable laws of day, 
evening and night, and seemed not to know that only a mile away it 
was being watched by many envious eyes. What did those people, 
who were now switching on their lights beyond those windows, 
think of us? Did they hate us as they had been taught to do, or did 
they perhaps sympathise with us secretly, looking through their 
frosted windows at the columns of smoke rising from that small 
scrap of earth where two thousand prisoners were trying to find 
some consolation? Would they have believed that we were still 
alive, if they could have seen our dead faces and touched our dried, 
ulcerated bodies, if they had glimpsed our hardened hearts? We 
ourselves were near to doubting it as we looked each other in the 


eyes, then how could those unintentional abettors of our suffering 
think that we lived? 

I walked round to the barracks where I had friends among the 
prisoners. At this time of the evening almost everyone was writing 
letters home or reading over old letters from home. They sat round 
the tables and on the bunks, leaning over the paper which was 
spread out on their wooden boxes, lost in thought, their faces 
flushed with the effort of writing and marked with an expression of 
longing. In every corner groups of prisoners discussed with 
excitement the composition of letters to the outside world, what 
could be said and what had to be concealed from the camp censors 
and from the recipients. Those who could write walked slowly up 
and down between the bunks, loudly offering their services to the 
illiterate for a piece of bread. Prisoners who knew that they would 
get no letters from home, who had no relations in the area covered 
by the Soviet postal system, joined the groups where letters were 
being read aloud. We all felt the troubles and sorrows of our 
companions, and the barrack really became one large family. 
There is no need to say how much those moments meant to me, 
deprived as I was of contact with my own family, able only to share 
the family news of my friends in the camp. 

Letters home were usually almost identical and their style was a 
compromise between the limitations which the camp censorship 
imposed on correspondence and the prisoners' need to express 
their true feelings. "I am in good health, I'm working and thinking 
of you, and I wish you the same" that was the formula which 
satisfied the authorities. "Time passes slowly, and I'm counting the 
days until I see you again" so wrote prisoners, trying in one short 
phrase to give their families some approximate idea of their agonies. 
"I've been in hospital, but I'm quite well now" ; or "Send me some 
onions, for they're very rare here in the north" ; or "As you know, 
I've never worked in the forest before, so I have to learn everything 
from the beginning" these outwardly indifferent sentences were 
the source of all information about life in the camp for those 
outside who could read between the lines. 

In the foresters' barrack I knew a Don Cossack called Pamfilov 
who used to read me letters from his son. Out of them grew a 
curious story, the more interesting because in the middle of 1941 it 
found an unexpected climax in the camp itself. 

The old Cossack had a son in the Red Army, a young lieutenant 


in a panzer division, whose photograph stood, in a silver paper 
frame, by the father's bunk in the barrack. I knew that in 1934 
the collectivisation of land had robbed old Pamfilov of a large farm 
near the Don; he had been sent into so-called "voluntary exile" in 
Siberia, where he had worked as an agricultural instructor until his 
arrest in 1937. His wife died in Siberia, and the son was con- 
scripted into the army at the age of eighteen. Pamfilov was a real 
kulak, of the kind seldom met in Russia these days: stubborn, 
arrogant, avaricious, distrustful and hard-working. He hated the 
system of collective farms with all his heart, was full of contempt 
for the Soviet regime, and deeply attached to memories of the land 
which had once been his. Even so he worked as few prisoners in his 
brigade could, with as much devotion and concentration as if it was 
his own forest that he was clearing. The camp authorities often 
singled him out as an example to the rest, forgetting that the secret 
of his hard work lay in a rare combination of two factors: first, he 
was incredibly strong his knotted, sinuous body, covered with 
hard skin from which, it seemed, a knife dropped from above would 
have slid off, might well have been carved out of the oldest and 
toughest oak; and second, he wanted above all to see his son again 
before he died. Pamfilov loved his Sasha with inhuman devotion. 
Often, after work, he lay down on his bunk and gazed for hours at 
the photograph by his side, stroking it with his gnarled fingers, with 
so much longing and nostalgia in his stare that, if roused suddenly, 
he would wake as if from profound sleep. Suppressing his native 
suspiciousness, he believed that hard and conscientious work would 
finally earn him the reward of a visit from his son. 

His love was not weakened even by the knowledge that it was not 
being fully returned. Sasha's letters we knew them almost by 
heart, so many times had Pamfilov read each one aloud to us were 
short and restrained, and recalled fragments of ready-made 
political propaganda. Usually, Sasha was glad that his father was 
well and working hard, wrote of his promotions and his hopes of a 
military career, added a few remarks on the subject of the happiness 
of life in the Soviet Union, and recommended his father to the 
justice of our "Socialist Fatherland". Old Pamfilov read slowly the 
first and the second paragraphs, skipped with irritation through the 
third, and was always delighted by the last, carefully weighing every 
word. "You see," he would explain eagerly and with slight em- 
barrassment, "that is what he has to write, but this comes from the 


heart. I like that 'the justice of our Soviet Fatherland'! It is to 
God that he recommends me, Sashenka, my only son. They can't 
change the boy's soul, even if the devil goes to work on him. I 
brought him up, I, Pamfilov, a Cossack from the Don, master of my 
own land." He was known in the camp as "that old yeoman 
Pamfilov", and about fifty prisoners at least must have known 
Sasha from letters and reminiscences. But few of them shared the 
father's certainty about the boy's soul; other prisoners had letters 
from home without a word about "our Socialist Fatherland". 
Pamfilov himself must have felt that it was not so simple, for after 
every letter he sought assurance in our faces. "Of course they won't 
change his soul, Pamfilov," we would say despite our private 
apprehensions, "of course they won't. A good seed will never breed 
a bad crop." 

But Sasha's letters were aH very old, for they dated mostly from 
the year 1939. The last one, written in November 1939, had reached 
Pamfilov in March 1940, well before my arrival in the camp. Then 
there was a long period without news, but Pamfilov filled in the gaps 
by re-reading the old letters. He found an attentive listener in me, 
for I was like a man who has started reading a serial in the middle 
and listens with interest to the previous instalments. That is how our 
friendship grew : thanks to me the old letters became fresh oncemore. 

Re-reading the stained and crumpled pieces of paper, Pamfilov 
lost some of his feeling of time and once, looking over his shoulder, 
I caught him altering the dates. But he was unable to hide his 
anxiety, which increased as he gradually realised that month after 
month was passing and not once had the name Pamfilov appeared 
on the letter-list by the posting-box. Prisoners in a camp may 
receive an unlimited number of letters, although their own corre- 
spondence is restricted to one a month; Pamfilov did not miss a 
single opportunity to write and ask his son for a letter the only 
thing which gave his own life any meaning. And though he tried to 
justify Sasha's behaviour, as if not only his feelings but also his 
family honour were at stake, we were not as blind as he. We looked 
in silence at his tired face and red, dry eyes; his hands trembled as 
they plunged into the little bag hanging round his neck in which he 
kept his son's letters, like those of a miser who is no longer able to 
distinguish real jewels from fakes. We knew that by disregarding 
his intuition he was shielding himself from what he knew to be 
the truth. 


At last, in March 1941, Pamfilov had another letter. It had taken 
over a year to reach him, for the date February 1940 had been 
but indistinctly crossed out by the censor and was just readable. 
Sasha wrote that urgent affairs would not allow him to write for 
some time. The stereotyped phrases about the power of the Soviet 
Union and our Socialist Fatherland were unusually full of fire, 
and the letter ended with a sentence in which the son justified and 
even praised his father's imprisonment as a "sign of historical 
necessity". Pamfilov closed his eyes and his hands fell to his knees, 
still holding the paper. We were all silent, for what could we have 
said? Pamfilov, who knew what the earth was and what fatherly 
love was, could never have understood a conception so difficult as 
that of "historical necessity". A few tears trickled out from under 
his closed eyelids. Then he dropped down on the bunk and 
quietly whispered: "I've lost my son, my son is dead." 

The next day Pamfilov did not go out to work, and was punished 
by three days' solitary confinement on bread and water in the camp 
prison. This broke his resistance and he returned to the forest, 
although he no longer worked hard there. In the evenings he would 
come back silent and morose, and would not speak to anyone. His 
neighbours on the bunk told me that one night, as he sat by the fire 
very late, he got up from the bench, took the little bag from his 
neck, and threw it into the flames. 

In April a transport of officers and soldiers from the Finnish front 
who had been sentenced to ten years for surrendering to the enemy 
passed through Yercevo. I was out at work that day, but when we 
came back to the zone towards morning Dimka told me with 
excitement that among them was Sasha Pamfilov, He had arrived 
in the morning, enquired where old Pamfilov was living, and lain 
down on his father's bunk. Other prisoners must have told him 
what effect his last letter had had on his father, for when the old 
Cossack returned to the barrack after work, Sasha jumped down to 
the ground and backed against the wall. Pamfilov went pale, 
trembled, dropped his empty mess-can, and advanced on his son 
with a mad gleam in his eyes. "Come on, Pamfilov," the prisoners 
cried from their bunks, "give him a taste of his father's fist!" But 
Pamfilov suddenly sat down on the bench, his head drooped as if 
he was fainting, and in the deep silence he whispered: "My son, 
my own dear son. ..." 

All night they talked quietly on the father's bunk, and the next 


morning Sasha was taken away on a transport for Nyandoma. 
Afterwards we saw old Pamfilov every day, working hard and 
patiently as before, as if he wanted to show his gratitude to the 
camp for at last uniting him with his son. 

Toward the evening of the rest-day, when the time of our main 
meal was approaching, we dispersed to our own barracks and 
seldom went out again. The last hours of the day were spent in 
conversation. We lay on the bunks closer to each other than usual, 
listening to someone's story or talking in the atmosphere of 
intimacy which common imprisonment creates when the daily 
struggle for existence does not put barriers of distrust and in- 
stinctive hostility between the prisoners. 

At that time of the evening our barrack became warm and homely, 
and the atmosphere was almost domestic. Boots and rags were 
drying on the chimney breast over a roaring fire, whose flames cast 
wavering shadows on the prisoners' rugged faces. Round the tables 
they played draughts or dice, and the sounds of guitars or mouth- 
organs cut across the chatter of a hundred voices. Even hunger 
seemed to be resting on that one day. On all faces one saw only 
peace, and the sudden swirls of the blizzard, which lifted whirls of 
snow into the air and hurled them violently at the roof, heightened 
the feeling, if not of absolute peace, then at least of temporary rest, 
in the barrack below. 

During several rest-days in succession, at least half our barrack 
listened, with rapt attention and without the slightest signs of 
boredom, to the repeated story of Rusto Karinen's unsuccessful 
attempt to escape from the camp in the winter of 1940. Karinen 
was a Finn from the 42nd (porters') brigade who had come to 
Russia illegally in 1933. As a qualified steel-worker, he had at once 
found well-paid work in Leningrad, where he lived comfortably, 
having learnt to speak Russian quite well, until the purge which 
followed the assassination of Kirov. Then he was arrested and 
accused of bringing secret instructions from Finland to the 
assassins. It would be difficult to think of a more improbable 
accusation, for all the investigations in the Kirov case even though 
they originated a whole wave of arrest and imprisonment, and some 
students of Soviet problems consider them to be the starting-point 
of the Great Purges never led to a public trial, and it is most 


probable that Nicolayev, the Leningrad student who shot Kirov, 
did so from purely personal motives. Karinen, an intelligent 
worker with some education and a wide experience of life, realised 
after the first few months of uninterrupted nightly hearings that the 
technique of Soviet inquisition is intended primarily not to ascertain 
the truth, but rather to achieve a compromise whereby the accused 
allows himself to be convicted by choosing the most convenient 
fiction from a number of fictitious crimes. He therefore agreed to 
play the part of an emissary from a foreign terrorist organisation, on 
condition that they would not require details about his superiors in 
Helsinki and his Leningrad contacts. His confession thus confirmed 
the indictment without giving any further details, and he declared 
that he had not carried out the mission with which he had been 
entrusted. But although his reasoning was on the whole accurate, 
Karinen miscalculated that small move. What for him was a 
compromise, a fiction designed to spare him further suffering in a 
situation from which there was no way out, after a few days became 
for the examining officer a scrap of truth extracted with difficulty 
from the accused and only the starting-point for further in- 
vestigations. But this time Karinen would not go a step further, 
and, what was more, he began to retract his first confession. In 
January 1936 he spent three weeks in the condemned cell, and in 
February, quite unexpectedly, a sentence of ten years' hard labour 
was read out to him. He came to Yercevo in the middle of 1939, 
having spent three years in the Kotlas camp. 

His attempted escape at the time of the Russo-Finnish war had 
become a legendary exploit in the camp. Every prisoner "plans" his 
escape from the camp in periods of self-confidence, and tries to 
include his best friends in the attempt. But these plans contained 
more naive self-deception, more desire for an illusory hope of life, 
than any chance of success or even definite preparation. Projects of 
escape were especially popular among Polish prisoners, for besides 
suffering the agonies of camp life, we were also tormented by the 
thought of our own idleness while somewhere far away, on battle- 
fronts with exotic names, the war was being fought without us. 
We would often meet in one of the barracks, an intimate group of 
Poles, to discuss the details of the plan; we collected scraps of metal 
found at work, old boxes and fragments of glass which we deluded 
ourselves could be made into an improvised compass; we gathered 
information about the surrounding countryside, and the distances, 


climatic conditions and geographical pecularities of the north and 
we were not discouraged by the knowledge that we were like 
children, fighting their battles with tin soldiers. We all felt that our 
preparations were ludicrous, but we did not have the courage to 
admit it to each other. In the nightmare land to which we had been 
brought from the West on hundreds of good trains, every grasp at 
our own private day-dreams gave us fresh life. After all, if member- 
ship of a non-existent terrorist organisation can be a crime punished 
by ten years in a labour camp, then why should a sharpened naU 
not be a compass-needle, a piece of wood a ski, and a scrap of paper, 
covered with scribbled dots and lines, a map? I remember a junior 
officer of the Polish cavalry who during the worst periods of hunger 
in the camp found enough strength of will to cut a thin slice of 
bread from his daily ration, dry it over the fire and save these scraps 
in a sack which he concealed in some mysterious hiding-place in the 
barrack. Years later, we met again in the Iraq desert, and as we 
recalled prison days over a bottle in an army tent, I made fun of his 
"plan'* of escape. But he answered gravely: "You shouldn't laugh 
at that. I survived the camp thanks to the hope of escape, and I 
survived the mortuary thanks to my store of bread. A man can't 
live if he doesn't know what he's living for." 

The Finn's story was not very instructive as far as technical 
details of escape were concerned, but we always listened to it with 
bated breath, as if the contemplation of his brave step would give 
us strength for further survival. In the corner of the barrack where 
he sat talking, with his legs hanging down from an upper bunk, 
complete silence reigned, interrupted only by impatient questions 
and cries anticipating the events before they occurred in his 
narrative. We knew the whole thing almost by heart, and yet we 
listened to it again and again with unflagging interest. Karinen 
talked slowly, in fluent Russian with a hardly perceptible foreign 
accent, gesticulating and breaking off every few minutes to swallow 
a sip of hvoya. His small, swollen eyes seemed to be re-living the 
epic, looking for the way in his lonely wandering through the snow- 
bound Archangel forests. 

He first decided to escape when the Russo-Finnish war changed 
from a short armed expedition into a prolonged tactical war. He 
could not say what caused him to make up his mind, whether it was 
some vestigial patriotic response or the hope that military activities 
had weakened the watchfulness of the frontier guards even on the 


Russian side. He knew the frontier country, for he had crossed it to 
reach Russia, and he planned to steal through the forests in the day- 
time, sleeping in wayside villages; it was a journey of several 
hundred kilometres, from the White Sea to the southern shore of 
Lake Onega, and from there to the northern shore of Lake Ladoga, 
which leads in an almost straight line to the Finnish frontier. Only 
the other four prisoners of his team in one of the forest brigades 
knew of his intentions. He set off during the lunch break, un- 
noticed by anyone except his companions. If the guard did not 
notice his absence until the evening, when he checked the numbers 
as the brigade marched back to the zone, Karinen would have 
gained about five hours, when he could be three miles away from the 
forest and six from the camp. He had dressed with particular care 
that morning, and under his wadded prison outfit he wore all his 
underclothes and the suit which he had brought with him into the 
camp, in which he intended to show himself in the villages. He 
carried a small sack with a few dried slices of black bread, a piece of 
fat contributed by one of the prisoners in whom he had confided, a 
bottle of vegetable oil purchased from a free official for a pair of 
shoes, and some onions ; in his pocket he had three boxes of matches 
and about two hundred roubles (although he refused to tell us 
where he had obtained the money, it is most likely that he had 
smuggled in and hidden some foreign currency when he first came to 
the camp, and later exchanged it for roubles with one of the camp 
officials). Instead of a compass he had a deep conviction that "it's 
enough to keep walking west in the morning with your back to the 
sun, with your face to it in the evening. 9 ' 

He walked fast during the first few hours, not stopping even to 
quench his thirst, but as he walked he gathered handfuls of snow 
from the trees and moistened his parched lips. Towards evening he 
heard the distant, muffled sound of several rifle-shots, and he 
guessed that the guard had discovered his absence and was giving 
the alarm, though he doubted whether the shots could be heard in 
the camp itself. He had the whole night before him, for the pursuit * 
would not start out until morning. But when darkness fell he lost 
his sense of direction, and could not go on. He found a place in a 
large hollow, dug a hole in the snow, covered the top thickly with 
branches and spent the whole night curled up inside. At the very 
bottom of his lair, between his outstretched legs, he lit a small fire 
and kept it going all night, blowing at it with all his strength and 


sheltering it from above with his frozen hands. He did not sleep 
that night, but he did not feel as if he was awake. The winter that 
year was hard and frosty; he inhaled the air into his lungs with 
painful gasps, but the thick layer of snow outside the hole, the roof 
of fir branches, the small flame of the fire, his double clothing and 
finally his own breath provided him with the minimum of heat 
necessary for survival. And though he was at liberty for the first 
time in five years, he did not feel free as he crouched tensely in his 
lair, listening to every noise of the mysterious forest, while Ms back 
froze to the wall of the hole. He dozed feverishly for short periods, 
and woke at the sound of his own shouting, as if he was turning on 
the hard planks of a prison bunk. Several times he raised himself 
lightly in his place to stretch his body and beat his chilled hands 
against his sides. At one moment, probably towards dawn, he 
suddenly thought that he heard voices and the barking of dogs. He 
tensed his whole body to jump out and run, but everything was quiet 
again. All around him was the night thick and impenetrable, icy 
and menacing a night without end and without hope. Huge 
lumps of snow fell from the trees, hitting the ground with a thud 
which made him think that he was being pursued. He felt terribly 
lonely, and for a while even thought of returning to the camp. 

At dawn he crawled out of his hiding-place, washed his face with 
snow, waited until the sky was light enough to see the sunrise, and 
then started off in the opposite direction. He walked slowly, for his 
bones were aching, his body was painfully hot, he felt fever and 
hunger alternately. About noon he took a piece of bread from his 
sack, poured a little vegetable oil on it, and cut a tiny morsel of fat 
with his penknife that was the daily ration which he had decided 
on before setting out, estimating that his whole stock of food would 
last thirty days. The day was bright, and the sun, whitish-pink from 
the frost, seemed to be bringing the forest back to life. He walked 
more briskly, inhaling deeply, looking at the green outlines of 
branches under thick layers of snow. He passed clearings where 
enormous northern fir trees, torn up from the earth by the Arctic 
winds, protruded up into the sky, their thin roots spread out and 
covered with frozen mud, as if they were stretching their hands from 
the very depths of the earth hideously bared from their rotting 
bodies. With a long stick he felt in front of him to avoid wolf-traps 
and hollows in the ground. Every hour he stopped to hear if the 
pursuit was catching up with him. He supposed that the police- 


dogs had lost his scent, for when he trod lightly his felt boots left 
almost no trace in the dry, powdery snow. 

That evening his heart was full of hope, and having dug another 
hole in a snow-covered hollow he lit a larger fire than the night 
before. For the first time since his escape, about midnight, he fell 
sound asleep, and woke only at dawn. He intended to approach 
no human habitation until he had covered a distance of at least 
fifty miles from the camp, after a week's march. On the fourth 
evening, as he was digging his usual hole and covering it with cut 
branches, he noticed a glow on the horizon, then the lightning- 
stroke of a searchlight pierced the night and vanished immediately. 
He was terrified, for it meant that there was a camp near by. That 
night he did not light a fire and almost froze to death, sitting in the 
snow with his jerkin drawn over his head, his hands inside the 
sleeves and his legs resting on a branch. In the morning he rose 
with a great effort of will from his snowy arm-chair, stretched 
himself with difficulty, and slowly began to rub snow on his frozen 
hands. He started walking a little later, hoping that he was passing 
the most westerly of the Kargopol camp sections, at a distance of 
about thirteen miles from Yercevo, perhaps Nyandoma. But he 
could not dispel his feeling of anxiety, and forgetting his original 
rule to follow the sun he turned off to the side, away from the 
place where he had seen the searchlight beam, and made his way 
north-west. He was walking slowly now, falling and stumbling 
on the way, had difficulty in swallowing his daily ration, and often 
had to rub snow on his burning forehead. He was near breaking- 
point, and though he did not remember this exactly, he thought 
that tears were streaming from his eyes although he was not crying. 
All around there was silence, his every step resounded and echoed 
infinitely. He was so frightened by his solitude that he started 
talking to himself in Finnish, for the first time in six years. Soon he 
ran out of subjects and words for this monologue, and he could 
only repeat a few phrases, even dimmer and longer unused a 
prayer remembered in his childhood. 

In the evening, as he could see no glow in the sky, he lit a larger 
fire and slept the whole night through, waking whenever the flame 
died down. He woke up with a sensation of strange discord within 
himself: he was and he was not himself, he remembered that he had 
escaped and yet he fancied that he was going out to work, he felt 
fever and numbness in his whole body, he knew what he had to do 


but could only stumble ahead like a sleep-walker. One thing is 
certain, that he forgot his principle of orientation that day, and 
simply walked on. In the afternoon he sat down under a tree and 
immediately fell asleep. He woke up in the middle of the night, 
suddenly frightened, and shouted loudly. He thought that he heard 
an answering call, jumped up and began to run, but after a few steps 
tripped and fell with his face in the snow. He lay like that for a 
while, then rose slowly and tried to marshal his thoughts. One idea 
recurred persistently in his brain: he must light a fire at all cost. It 
was the sixth night of his escape. By the fire he thawed a little, and 
decided that at dawn he must find some human settlement where 
he could rest and get better. The next morning he ate a piece of 
bread and fat, and started off again, without any idea where he 
was going. Late in the afternoon he saw, far beyond the forest, 
several pillars of smoke rising into the air. He walked faster and 
impatiently, but it was not until evening that he saw lights gleaming 
on the edge of a clearing. Without taking off his prison clothes, he 
walked into the first hut that he came to and there, on a bench by 
the fire, he lost all consciousness. 

The village which Karinen found after seven days' wandering 
in the forest was only eight miles away from Yercevo. The peasants 
drove him back to the camp and there the guards took him to the 
internal prison, where, still unconscious, he was beaten so cruelly 
that for three months he was near death, and even after his life had 
been saved he had to remain in the hospital for another two months. 
It was said that Samsonov had never sent out a pursuit, knowing 
that Karinen would either die in the forest or come back to the 
camp. He had come back. "You can't escape from the camp, my 
friends," so Karinen always ended the story, "freedom isn't for us. 
We're chained to this place for the rest of our lives, even though we 
aren't wearing chains. We can escape, we can wander about, but 
in the end we'll come back. That's our fate, our accursed fate." 
"Don't worry, Rusto Petrovich," the prisoners would comfort 
him, "it was worth it, after all. You had a week's freedom and five 
months in the hospital.*' "That's true," he would answer sadly, 
"but you still can't escape. Our life is here, brothers, this is where 
we shall end. When freedom itself is against us, how can we 

"Let's go to sleep," the prisoners would say, looking at each 
other immovably. "The rest-day is over. Back to work tomorrow." 


And after a moment, from bunk to bunk, from mouth to mouth, 
passed these whispered words, like a message sent through the 
cells in prison, whose horror no one who has not known a Soviet 
camp can understand: "Back to work tomorrow." 



FROM what I observed in the camp it appears that men bear 
physical and sexual hunger far better than women. The simple law 
of camp ethics laid it down that those who were in a position to 
break down a woman's resistance by depriving her of food satisfied 
both her fundamental needs when she finally gave in. If the 
recollection of all that happened in Europe during the late war is to 
have any meaning at all, we must forget the principles of every- 
day morality on which the life of our grandfathers and fathers was 
founded in the second half of the nineteenth century and the first 
decades of the twentieth century, that period which seemed to 
realise before our eyes the positivist myth of progress. An orthodox 
Marxist would say that there is no such thing as absolute morality, 
since individual experience is conditioned by material surroundings. 
This means that every epoch, every country and every social class 
creates its own morality, or that all these three factors together 
create something which we may call the unwritten law of behaviour 
in one particular place. The experiences of the past twenty years in 
Germany and Soviet Russia support this theory to a certain extent. 
There it has been proved that when the body has reached the limit 
of its endurance, one cannot, as was once believed, rely on strength 
of character and conscious recognition of spiritual values; that 
there is nothing, in fact, which man cannot be forced to do by 
hunger and pain. This "new morality" is not a code of decent 
human behaviour, for its standard is expediency in action towards 
men, and though today its fangs are sharp and dangerous, its 
tradition reaches back to the Spanish Inquisition on which it cut 
those teeth. We must not dismiss this fact Ughtly. The old morality 
of the Catholic Church and the new morality of the Soviet system 
share the fundamental conviction that man without faith -faith in 
the revealed system of spiritual values in the one case or in the 
enforced system of material values in the other is a shapeless heap 
of rubbish. Lysenko's revolution in genetics reversed basically- 
related principles of the Catholic Church. In the latter, man is lost 
in the whirlpools of sin and damnation if he is not saved by the light 



of supernatural grace; in the materialist creed he becomes what 
artificially developed conditions make him. But both systems 
deprive man of his will, and it only depends on which formula of the 
aim of human life is adopted whether the heap of rubbish will bring 
forth the required specimen of biological cultivation or the blessed 
flower of the human soul. I myself belong neither to those whom 
their experiences of the horrors of war have forced into acquie- 
scence in the "new morality", nor to those who see in these horrors 
further proof of man's impotence when faced with the power of 
Satan. I became convinced that a man can be human only under 
human conditions, and I believe that it is fantastic nonsense to 
judge him by actions which he commits under inhuman conditions 
as if water could be measured by fire, and earth by Hell. But the 
trouble is that a writer who wishes to describe a Soviet labour camp 
objectively must descend to the depths of Hell where he should not 
seek human motives behind inhuman deeds. It is from there that 
the faces of Ms dead and perhaps still living friends look up at him, 
and their lips, blue with hunger and frost, whisper: "Tell them the 
truth about us, tell them what we were brought to." 

In defence of women it should be said that the camp morality, 
like any other system of values, created also its own hypocrisy. 
Thus, for instance, no one would dream of blaming a young boy 
who, in order to improve his conditions, became the lover of the 
elderly woman doctor, but a pretty girl who from hunger gave 
herself to the repulsive old man in charge of the bread store was, 
naturally, a whore. The regular monthly denunciations to the 
Third Section, by means of which almost all brigadiers and technical 
experts settled their personal accounts, were never questioned as 
immoral, but a woman who left the zone at night to sleep with the 
camp chief was dubbed a prostitute, and of the worst type, for she 
broke the solidarity of prisoners against free men. It was natural 
for a newly-arrived prisoner to hand over to his brigadier the 
remnants of his civilian clothing in order to obtain a good rating of 
his working capacity (for that decided the amount of rations for 
each prisoner), but there were some who were shocked when a 
penniless girl, bending under the weight of an axe in the forest, gave 
to the same brigadier on her first or second evening in the camp her 
one remaining worldly possession her body. A prisoner who was 
found stealing bread from another would probably die as a result of 
the punishment meted out to him by the urkas, who were the 


highest law-givers and judges of camp ethics; but among the Poles 
there was a certain priest who disguised his pastoral dignity under a 
prisoner's rags, whose feed price for confession and absolution was 
200 grammes of bread (100 grammes less than the old Uzbek who 
read fortunes from hands), and who lived among his parishioners in 
an aura of sanctity. 

The cause of this complex and obscure phenomenon is the sub- 
conscious desire, which exists in every larger community, to drag 
under the censure of "public opinion 5 ' offenders who have been 
caught red-handed, in order to whiten one's own conscience at a 
small price. Women were fitted for the part of scapegoats not only 
because they seldom had an opportunity to trade with anything but 
their own bodies, but also because they brought with them, even 
to the camp, the burden of the conventional morality of the outside 
world, which rules that every man who possesses a woman after only 
a few hours of flirtation and acquaintance is a dashing seducer, and 
that every woman who gives herself to a newly-met man is a wanton. 
Individual moral outlook, and consequently hypocrisy, varied 
according to the circumstances of a prisoner's life before im- 
prisonment. The problem did not really exist for the Russians, 
accustomed to "five-rouble marriages" and copulation practised in 
public conveniences according to immediate physiological needs, 
and their attitude to it was expressed by the mockery with which 
they greeted the institution of legal equality for women under the 
new regime. Foreign prisoners, including veteran communists, 
frequently shook their heads over "the general decline of morality 
in Russia". Anyway, it is true that hunger, more frequently than 
anything else, broke down the resistance of women, and once it was 
broken, there was no obstacle to stop them on the downward path 
which led them to the very depths of sexual bestiality. Some gave in 
not only with the hope of improving their conditions or finding a 
powerful protector, but also .with the hope of maternity. This must 
not be taken too sentimentally. Pregnant women in camps are 
freed from work for three months before and six months after the 
baby's delivery. Six months was the period considered sufficient 
for the suckling of a child until it was old enough to be taken away 
from its mother and transported to some unknown destination. 
The maternity barrack in Yercevo was always full of women who 
with pathetic gravity pushed the burden of their swollen bellies in 
front of them as they walked to the kitchen for their soup. But it is 


difficult to talk of feelings, of genuine human feelings, when we were 
forced to make love before the eyes of our fellow-prisoners, or at 
best in the store of old clothing, on piles of sweaty and stinking 
rags. After all these years one retains a memory of disgust like 
rolling in the slime left behind at the bottom of an empty fountain, 
and a deep distaste for oneself and for the woman who once seemed 
so close. . . . 

In January 1941, when I had been at the camp several weeks, a 
young Polish girl, the daughter of an officer from Tarnopol, arrived 
with a transport. She was really lovely: slim and- supple, with a 
girlishly fresh face and tiny breasts whose outline could only just 
be guessed at behind the blue blouse of her school uniform. An 
informal jury of urkas rated the "young mare" very highly and, 
doubtless to whet their proletarian appetites, called her "the 
general's daughter". The girl, however, held out very well; she 
walked out to work with her head raised proudly, and repulsed any 
man who ventured near her, with darting, angry looks. In the 
evenings she returned from work rather more humbly, but still 
untouchable and modestly haughty. She went straight from the 
guard-house to the kitchen for her portion of soup, and did not 
leave the women's barrack again during the night. Therefore it 
looked as if she would not quickly fall a victim to the night hunts of 
the camp zone. There was also little possibility that she would be 
broken by hunger, for she was assigned to the 56th brigade, 
made up of women and invalids, which patched torn sacks and 
sorted vegetables at the food supply centre, and though the 
prisoners of the 56th did not have the same opportunities for theft 
as we had in the porters' brigade, yet the work was comparatively 
light. I was not then familiar enough with camp life to foresee the 
outcome of this silent struggle, and without hesitation I accepted 
the proposition of the engineer Polenko, supervisor of the vegetable 
store at the food supply centre, and bet him half a loaf of bread that 
the girl would not give in. This wager excited me particularly from a 
patriotic point of view I wanted to see the red-and-white colours of 
Poland flying, so to speak, from the mast-head of triumphant 
virtue. After seven months of prison and camp I was so exhausted 
physically that I had as yet no desire for women, and I was ready to 
believe the warning of my first interrogator "You will live, yes, but 
you won't want to sleep with a woman." But taking advantage of 
the position which I enjoyed as a porter friendly with the urkas, I 


decided to cheat Polenko and, introducing myself to her as a 
student from Warsaw in order that she should not be able to plead 
the excuse of a misalliance, I proposed to the girl a fictitious 
marriage, which would have given her some protection according 
to the peculiar ius primes noctis of the camp. I no longer remember 
the exact words of her answer, but it must have been something like 
"How dare you!", for I gave it up. But Polenko, while she was 
working under his supervision at the vegetable store, took special 
care to see that she did not steal even a single rotten carrot or 
salted tomato from the barrels. About a month after we had agreed 
on the bet he came one evening to my barrack, and without a word 
threw a torn pair of knickers on my bunk. Carefully, and in 
silence, I cut half a loaf of bread and gave it to him. 

From that time the girl underwent a complete change. She never 
hurried to get her soup from the kitchen as before, but after her 
return from work wandered about the camp zone till late at night 
like a cat on heat. Whoever wanted to could'have her, on a bunk, 
under the bunk, in the separate cubicles of the technical experts, or 
in the clothing store. Whenever she met me, she turned her head 
aside, and tightened her lips convulsively. Once, entering the 
potato store at the centre, I found her on a pile of potatoes with the 
brigadier of the 56th, the hunchbacked half-breed Levkovich; she 
burst into a spasmodic fit of weeping, and as she returned to the 
camp zone in the evening she held back her tears with two tiny 
fists. I met her again in 1943, in Palestine. She was already an old 
woman. A tired smile on her wrinkled face revealed the holes in her 
yellow, decayed teeth, and her sweaty cotton shirt was bursting 
under the weight of two enormous hanging breasts like those of a 
nursing mother. 

A similar episode was well-known in Yercevo, not because in 
itself it was anything but usual and commonplace, but because its 
heroine had also put up a long resistance by camp standards. It 
concerned Tania, a black-haired singer of the Moscow Opera, who, 
according to custom, had been invited with other artistes to a ball 
given for the foreign diplomatic corps, where she had disobeyed the 
preliminary instructions of the N.K.V.D. by dancing more than the 
prescribed amount with the Japanese Ambassador the suspicion 
of espionage earned her a sentence often years in the labour camp. 
As a "political suspect" she was immediately assigned to the 
foresters' brigade. What could that filigree princess with thin, 


delicate hands do in a forest? Throw twigs on the fire, perhaps, if 
she had the luck to be under a human brigadier. But, unfortunately 
for her, she was desired by Vanya, the short urka in charge of her 
brigade, and she was put to work clearing felled fir trees of bark with 
a huge axe which she could hardly lift. Lagging several yards 
behind the hefty foresters, she arrived in the zone at evening with 
hardly enough strength left to crawl to the kitchen and collect her 
first cauldron (needless to say, the urka had assessed her working 
capacity below the 100 per cent norm). It was obvious that she had 
a high temperature, but the medical orderly was a friend of Vanya's 
and would not free her from work. This went on for two weeks, a 
record of endurance under the conditions of the forest brigade; 
then one evening Tania quietly entered the foresters' barrack, and 
not looking Vanya in the face, dropped heavily on to his bunk. 
She had a lucky instinct, treated the whole tiling light-heartedly and 
became something like a brigade mascot until the lustful hand 
of some camp chief dragged her out by the hair from the rubbish- 
heap and placed her behind a table in the camp accountants' office. 
Later, we heard her singing pretty Russian songs at a camp concert 
in the barrack of "self-taught creative activities", while threatening 
murmurs of "Moscow whore" could be heard in the foresters' 
corner. What would happen when she no longer pleased her chief 
and had to return to the "forest boys"? 

Hunger. . . . Hunger is a horrible sensation, which becomes 
transformed into an abstraction, into nightmares fed by the mind's 
perpetual fever. The body is like an over-heated machine, working 
at increased speed and on less fuel, and the wasted arms and legs 
come to resemble torn driving-belts. There is no limit to the 
physical effects of hunger beyond which tottering human dignity 
might still keep its uncertain but independent balance. Many 
times I flattened my pale face against the frosted glass pane of the 
kitchen window, to beg with a dumb look for another ladleful of 
"thin" soup from the Leningrad thief Fyedka who was in charge. 
And I remember that my best friend, an old communist and the 
comrade of Lenin's youth, the engineer Sadovski, once, on the 
empty platform by the kitchen, snatched from my hand a canful of 
soup and, running away with it, did not even wait until he reached 
the latrine but on the way there drank up the hot mess with feverish 
lips. If God exists, let him punish mercilessly those who break 
others with hunger. 


Only the porters, when the supervision at the food supply centre 
was relaxed, and those prisoners who, armed with special passes, 
left the camp zone to work outside without a guard, had any 
opportunities of satisfying their hunger. But even beyond the zone 
the situation was just as bad. From the guard-house we could 
sometimes see queues in front of the small wooden hut at the end of 
the village outside the zone. The whole garrison and ad- 
ministrative staff of the camp were entitled to buy there, above their 
normal rations, two kilograms of black bread and a length of horse 
sausage every day, and once a week half a litre of vodka. Within the 
village there was, it is true, another shop, called the "speclarok", 
but that one opened its doors only to ten specified camp dignitaries. 
At the head of this list came the chief commander of the whole 
Kargopol camp, Captain of State Security Kolicyn, next the chief of 
the Third Section in Kargopol, then the officer in charge of the camp 
food supply, Blumen, the chief of the Yercevo camp section, 
Samsonov, finally the chiefs of the other six main camp sections. I 
remember Blumen best of them all, as the whole food supply centre 
trembled with fear whenever he came round on a tour of inspection. 
This fat beast, with an enormous gold watch on his right wrist and 
innumerable rings on the fingers of both hands, was always pre- 
ceded in the dusk by a faint cloud of perfume. He said little, and 
then always the same thing: "You must work bard, prisoners, this 
is not a health resort." I can still see his flushed, angry, fat face 
when he noticed a rotten carrot hidden in the bosom of one of the 
women workers and, ripping her blouse open across her breast, 
slapped both her cheeks with a podgy hand. This incident was the 
subject of comments whose tendency it was not difficult to guess 
among prisoners; no one who has not lived in a Soviet labour camp 
can realise the extent of anti-Semitism in Russia, which becomes 
increasingly violent and vengeful as it is repressed and eliminated 
from above. The "fat ten" of the camp command were supplied 
better than the rest, and often our good-natured guard could not 
repress a sigh of complaint as we unloaded champagne or confetti 
for their speclarok. Even the free had their own hierarchies, 
their petty rivalries and troubles. 

Only in the bath-house was it possible to examine the effects of 
hunger, for in the barracks the prisoners seldom undressed for the 


night. The small bath-hut was always full of murky grey light which 
filtered in through the dirty window-panes, and of steam which 
rose from a huge vat of boiling water. Before going in, we handed 
over our clothes to be deloused, and received in return a piece of 
grey soap the size of a domino counter. When the clothes had been 
deloused they were brought in, hung on iron rings on a long pole, 
by an elderly priest who, sloping the pole, let the bundles fall on to 
the floor of the passage. It was pleasant to feel the hard plasters of 
heated clothing on a clean body. There was no other way of 
changing clothes; we went to the bath-house once every three 
weeks, and these visits were the only time that we really washed 
ourselves, for usually we just moistened with snow our encrusted 
eyes, our noses hard as shells, and our cracked lips. A thin, half- 
naked teacher from Novosybirsk, who looked like a Hindu yogi as 
he watched us bathing, his eyes covered with a thin cataract, gave 
us each two pails of water, one boiling, and one cold. Thin shadowy 
forms, with drooping testicles and fallen stomachs and chests, their 
legs covered with open sores and joined like two matchsticks to thin 
hips, bent under the weight of the pails, puffing from exhaustion in 
the steamy atmosphere of the hut. The Novosybirsk teacher here 
played the part of a eunuch in a Turkish harem, for his functions 
were the same when women came to the bath-house. For a pinch of 
tobacco he would tell us whether their breasts and thighs were 
beautiful, whether the old ones were flattened like blocks hit with a 
steam-hammer so that their heads grew straight out of mon- 
strously widened hips supported on legs like knotted branches, or 
whether the young ones still retained the vestiges of girlish modesty 
and the straight line of their shoulders. 

One day someone stole my piece of soap from the bench and I 
swore angrily in Polish. A small, grey-haired old man, standing next 
to me over his bucket of hot water, raised his gentle eyes towards me 
and asked in Polish, enunciating each word with difficulty: "Did 
you by any chance know the poet Tuvim?" 

"Not personally, no, 5 ' I replied, bewildered by this unusual 
question, "though, of course, I have read . . ." 

"Well then, you can wash my back for me." 

As I soaped his thin back he explained everything to me, coughing 
incessantly as he did so. His name was Boris Lazarovich N., a 
professor who, before the First World War, had studied at the 
Russian Secondary School in Lodz in Poland, and had gone to 


Russia after the Revolution of 1918. From his schooldays he 
remembered a younger fellow-student, Tuvim, and he had learnt 
from the press that he had become a well-known poet. * In 1925 N., 
then Professor of French Literature in the prose class of the 
Bryusov Institute in Moscow, t arranged for Olga, a young Polish 
girl from Lodz, to join him in Russia : he married her and placed her 
at the Polytechnic, and several years later obtained for her a 
position as electrical engineer at a Moscow factory. In 1937 N. 
and his wife were arrested and given ten-year sentences for organis- 
ing a literary salon which discussed exclusively Polish literature. 
After three years apart they met by chance in one of the Kargopol 
camp sections, and now they had arrived together in Yercevo, an 
accident hitherto unprecedented in the annals of Soviet labour 

The same evening I met Olga, a young, good-looking woman, 
who followed every movement of her helpless husband with an 
expression of sadness and dumb adoration, and the next day the 
three of us were already the best of friends. The old man had not 
long before been thrown out of his brigade because of his failing 
strength; he was given a card for the first cauldron and sent to the 
mortuary. His wife was assigned to the 56th brigade, and spent her 
days repairing sacks and sorting vegetables at the food supply centre. 
N. could not bear hunger and the thought of food became the 
one obsession of his old age. Sometimes I managed to bring from 
the centre a few roasted potatoes or a piece of salted treska, and 
when he had swallowed greedily everything that I had sur- 
reptitiously slipped into his hand, he would talk to me about his 
former life. He had lectured on French prose, chiefly Balzac, at the 
Bryusov Institute, and he told me of the strange and varying 
fortunes which Balzac's reputation had suffered in Russia owing to 
the constant changes in the official political outlook. In the first 
years after the Revolution Balzac was the widely-worshipped 
author of The Peasants; in the thirties this enthusiasm dropped in 
face of the cross-fire of Marxist literary criticism, which violently 
attacked Balzac's royalist position; and just before the Great 
Purge he became popular again as the unequalled chronicler of 

* Tuvim, one of the most famous modern Polish poets, is now in Poland 
and an enthusiastic communist. 

t The Bryusov Institute was a school for young writers with courses in 
prose, poetry, drama, and literary criticism. 


nouveaux riches, who then arose from every section of the reigning 
regime. I remember, too, that N. begged me with tears in his eyes, 
if I ever left the camp, to read the greatest Russian writer, Gon- 
charov, particularly his brilliant study of Cervantes. Once also, 
as a proof of his friendship and confidence in me, he brought me an 
issue of International Literature and with great disgust told me to 
read an article by some English communist called The Decline and 
Fall of the British Empire. 

The old professor became very fond of me and even, I venture to 
say, regarded me as his pupil, while I for my part still look upon him 
as one of the masters of my youth, even though I could hardly have 
learnt much from him under the conditions in which -We lived then. 
It sometimes happened that, as I came off the night shift, he would 
wait for me at the guard-house like an impatient tutor when his 
pupil is late for a class, and without letting me finish my morning 
soup, he would drag me off, if the day was sunny, to a small bench 
near the barbed wire. We would sit together, he trembling with 
excitement, I half-dead with exhaustion, and looking at the white 
page of the plain ruled with the long lines of wire, marked off by 
the clefs of the posts, we rehearsed as if from music our morning 
exercise. I had to repeat slowly all that I had learnt at previous 
lessons; whenever I made a mistake the old man corrected me 
irritably, and when I managed to struggle successfully through 
wolf-traps bristling with names, facts and his favourite little 
dicta, he would give me an "excellent", laying the blame for all 
mistakes on my sleepy eyes and on night work. Occasionally, to my 
great joy and pride, we exchanged roles, and he listened attentively 
while I told him of all that had occurred in European and Polish 
literature since his imprisonment. I remember how his eyes, their 
fire extinguished by the hopeless struggle with hunger, blazed 
afresh and his pale cheeks flushed as I told him of Maritain's 
thomistic theory of art, which I myself had heard at Warsaw 
University in 1939, just before war broke out. This idyll lasted 
hardly three months, for in March 1941 N. was sent with a transport 
to the camp section of Mostovitza in the nick of time, for a period 
of terrible hunger was just beginning at Yercevo, and it was 
becoming increasingly difficult to steal a few potatoes at the centre. 
The first signs of this hunger appeared toward the end of winter 
1941, and by the spring all life had vanished from the camp. Soup 
in the kitchens became thinner every day, bread was frequently 


underweight, and the herrings which were sometimes added, to the 
great joy of Dimka, to the third cauldron disappeared completely. 
The effects of this starvation began to be very apparent. The 
brigades returned from work more slowly; in the evenings one 
could hardly walk along the paths which were crowded with 
stumbling victims of night-blindness; in the waiting-room of the 
medical hut swollen trunk-like legs, covered with festering scurvy 
sores, were revealed ready for inspection; every night a large sledge 
brought back to the camp one or two foresters who had fainted at 
work. Hunger does not relax its hold at night, but on the contrary, 
it attacks cunningly and forcefully with its hidden weapon. Only 
Iganov, an old Russian from the carpenters' brigade, prayed till 
late every night, covering his face with his hands. The rest slept 
in the oppressive silence of the barrack the feverish sleep of those in 
pain, sucking in the air with a whistle through half-opened lips, 
turning restlessly from side to side, gabbling and sobbing in their 
sleep in a heart-rending whisper. My own dreams assumed a 
cannibalistic, erotic form; love and hunger returned to their 
common biological root, releasing from the depths of my sub- 
conscious images of women made of fresh dough whom I would 
bite in fantastic orgies till they streamed with blood and milk, 
twining their arms which smelt like fresh loaves round my burning 
head. I would wake, exhausted and covered in sweat, usually just 
as the Moscow- Archangel express passed like an arrow of sound 
about a mile away from the camp zone. Iganov would still be at his 
prayers, while Dimka, priest though he was, gazed at him with 
hatred and contempt, beating out with a spoon his own litany of 
hunger on the wooden leg stretched out in front of him. Dimka had 
agreed to help three latrine cleaners for an extra plateful of soup, 
and he would return to the barrack just before midnight, wet and 
stinking like a sewer rat. From old habit he would still lift the lid of 
the rubbish bin, but for a long time now there had been no herring- 
scraps on its clean bottom. Once he came back looking gay and 
mysterious, and pulled a piece of bleeding raw meat from the front 
of his shirt. He roasted it over the dying fire for a long time, and 
when we were tearing the hard meat with our teeth, he laughed 
softly: "Let that one pray if he wants to, we'll just go on and finish 
off this poor little dog who was silly enough to stray into the 
latrine." "Of course," I answered, laughing, "the heavenly dogs are 
on chains, guarding the Kingdom of God they would never stray 


into a camp." From the two rows of living dead around us sleep 
forced a weakening sigh, a soft weeping which rose gently like 
bubbles on the surface of a murky, tainted pool. 

It is an old saying that "necessity is the mother of invention", 
but it took me two months to realise that the flour dropped and 
swept up after each wagon had been unloaded at the centre could be 
made into a kind of dough which would serve to fill holes in the 
stomach. From that time we took small tins with us to the centre, 
and in the lunch break one of us stood on guard in front of the 
watchman's hut while we heated the tins and mixed the dough in 
them with twigs. In the second half of May I perfected this 
technique, and every day. half an hour before we finished work and 
returned to the zone, I mixed in a small pan a large piece of soft 
dough, which I then spread in a thin, even layer over Olga's naked 
breasts in the darkest corner of the sack-repair hut. Padded like 
this, Olga passed unscathed through all searches at the guard- 
house, though we trembled at the thought that the old guard who 
did no more than gently feel the outlines of the women who passed 
through the gates might be replaced by the pock-marked wardress 
Nadyezda Mikhailovna, who would be much more thorough. We 
would meet after dark in the old-clothing store and divide the food 
into four portions: one for the store-keeper as payment for the use 
of the hut, one for Dimka and one for each of us. It happens that 
even in a labour camp the most fantastic and improbable dreams 
may come true. 

But from Mostovitza came very sad news of Professor N. 
Prisoners who passed through the transit barrack told me that the 
old man was dying of hunger, did not wash or shave, never left the 
mortuary except to collect his food, and, begging on the platform 
outside the kitchen, frequently had fits of hunger dementia. But 
once, just before the outbreak of the Russo-German war, Olga 
received through a prisoner a dirty scrap of paper with a note from 
her husband. One sentence showed us that his brain was not yet 
completely destroyed: "Please tell Gustav Yosifovich that at last I 
can understand what an excellent social-realist Knut Hamsun was." 



"We are a beaten lot," they used to say; "our guts 
have been knocked out, that's why we shout at 
night." DOSTOEVSKY The House of the Dead. 

THE electric light burned in the barracks continuously from dusk 
till dawn. Nevertheless, we had a very distinct intimation of the 
approaching night. 

After work, after the evening soup, we still had two or three 
hours' rest left before nightfall. The prisoners spent them in 
various occupations: some, sitting on their bunks and swinging 
their legs over the sides, mended their worn camp clothing or wrote 
letters, leaning on the wooden boxes which contained their pos- 
sessions ; some went out to visit friends in other barracks ; the young 
men gathered outside the women's barrack; the stakhanovites, who 
were allowed to make use of the small shop in the zone, went there 
to see if a piece of horse sausage had appeared on the empty 
shelves of the dark little room; the sick prepared themselves for a 
visit to the medical hut next morning, and the brigadiers hastily 
wrote out their statements of productivity norms for the 
accountants* office. All these activities had one quality in common 
they imitated the normal occupations of a free life. Our be- 
haviour was a parody of the gestures, habits and responses of our 
former existence, observing the symbolic ritual of a dimly re- 
membered routine particularly when the form had lost all meaning 
in the conditions of the camp. I frequently heard remarks like: "I 
always used to play draughts after supper," or: "My wife always 
grumbled because I wandered about propping up other people's 
mantelpieces, instead of staying at home and going to sleep. A 
habit is a habit, after all, and it's stayed with me all my life." The 
subconscious imitation of past freedom saved a prisoner from 
despair and made his life in the camp bearable, though he never 
stopped to distinguish between illusion and reality. It is difficult to 
say how far this instinctive defence mechanism was the natural 
behaviour of people who had spent the greatest part of their lives at 
liberty, and how far an artificial reaction imposed by the conditions 



of slavery. One thing, however, is certain : it is impossible to under- 
stand slavery without applying to it even the most deformed 
standards of freedom. 

The foregoing description, however, applies only to those few 
prisoners who made some effort to save themselves from complete 
demoralisation. But the majority a dreadfully overwhelming 
majority, of whom I was one at the beginning and at the end of my 
imprisonment left their bunks during the evening only to fill up 
the hollowness of their stomachs with a pint or two of the inevitable 
hot water. It must be remembered in their favour that after eleven 
hours' work on an empty stomach the slightest activity demanded 
either an enormous effort of will, or else a temptation strong 
enough to conquer exhaustion. The majority of prisoners, who 
dreamt of rest throughout the long day and lay on their bunks 
motionless after supper, deluded themselves that this suicidal form 
of relaxation strengthened the organism of their bodies. In the 
camp the normal process was reversed: inertia and apathy hastened 
death, while any form of activity postponed it for an unforeseen 
period. A prisoner who gave himself up to despair and the thought 
of death, without the slightest attempt to overcome it, and who, in 
an access of hunger dementia, poured into himself a useless ballast 
of hot water, would suddenly die one night, and the dawn revealed 
his swollen and monstrously distended body lying on the bunk. If 
he avoided that death, similar to the bursting of an inflated bladder, 
he would gradually swell out, then return briefly to normal only to 
end up in the mortuary by the side of other skeletons like himself. 
Prisoners who before dying tried to save themselves by a certain 
voluntary exertion lived for several years in relatively good health, 
then quite suddenly one day began to swell and died of starvation 
swelling when the exhausted heart was unable to go on pumping 
blood through arteries so extended. 

In the evenings the barrack, with only a few places empty on the 
bunks, was a sight oddly reminiscent of a hospital. Some prisoners 
lay without moving, having taken off nothing but their shoes, and 
begrudging themselves every movement of arms or legs stared 
aimlessly at their neighbours; others talked in small groups, 
sprawled in untidy positions on the bunks, like patients who speak 
only in whispers even in the hours free from the doctor's visits; 
guests from other barracks usually sat round the stove or on their 
hosts' bunks, and as the only fully-clothed people there, they gave 


the impression of being healthy visitors to the bedsides of sick 
friends. There was over it all an atmosphere of peace, relief, 
steaming exhaustion and sadness in forced isolation, and the con- 
stantly burning light of several electric bulbs underlined the 
resemblance to a hospital in a lifelike, but not in the least incon- 
gruous, fashion. The flames cast dull reflections on the frosted 
square window-panes, white inside and gleaming outside like 
black crystals. Looking in from the door, one could easily have 
mistaken the bundles of rags lying on tiers of bunks for untidy 
bedding, and the cloth foot-wrappings, now steaming on the clay 
chimney-breast overhanging the fire and on lengths of string 
stretched between the beams of the ceiling, for drying linen. It was 
not, then, the appearance of the barrack which was so terrifying. 
The appearance of its inhabitants, however, made one realise that 
this was a ward for incurables as one walked from the door farther 
into the barrack and saw those eyes in which the shadow of death 
lay tensely before its flight on the wings of the night. The prisoners 
who never stirred from their bunks in the evening feared the night 
with its menace of sudden death, and their pulse quickened as its 
approach grew more imminent. 

On the evening of my arrival in the camp, when I returned for a 
moment to the barrack from the medical hut, I was struck by the 
expression on the face of an old man who sat over the fire, half- 
naked, poking about in the flames with an iron rod. The wrinkled, 
flabby pouches of his cheeks drooped down almost to the sparse 
tuft on his chin, exposing the distended, burning eyes of a fanatic. I 
can no longer remember the expression in those eyes, but even now 
I cannot explain the feeling I had then that I was looking into the 
eyes of a man who was dead although he still continued to breathe, 
who knew that he had been dead for a long time although his 
shrivelled heart continued to beat in the empty sack of his body. I 
saw in those eyes not the active despair of a man helpless before 
approaching death, but the passive hopelessness of one who, 
despite everything, continues to live. Those who still expect 
something of the future are free to talk about hope; but how are you 
to breathe hope into a man who is too weak even to put an end to 
his own suffering? How could I have convinced this fundamentally 
religious man, who prayed for a speedy death as for God's greatest 
blessing, that man's greatest privilege is free will in slavery, that he 
always retains the right to make his own ultimate choice between 


life and death? For him everything was finished, all hope had 
vanished, there was left only the torture of an empty life; and yet his 
hand, instead of ending the aimless, endless beating of his heart, 
suddenly dropped the poker and, as if with a flaming sword, traced 
a broad sign of the cross from the furrowed brow down to the folds 
of the stomach, and over the hairy chest. In the lives of some 
prisoners there is something inexplicable, some unsuspected 
revelation; their final hope seems to be that they will eventually be 
killed by their own hopelessness, and the silent torment of their 
lives comforts them with momentary happiness which the thought 
of death gives them. Their Christianity is not a belief in the 
mystical redemption of souls wearied with earthly wandering, but 
only gratitude to a religion which promises eternal rest. They are 
religious suicides, worshippers of death for whom the release of the 
grave is the ultimate end, not the means to a life after death. 
Perhaps the deeply emotional nature of their vision of death 
explains their hatred of life. They hate themselves and others, if 
only because, despite their hopes and most fervent dreams, they 
are still alive. "We should be dead; we're human rubbish, we 
should die for our own good and for the greater glory of God.' ' 

Later, I became acquainted with the old man. He was a farmer 
from the small, autonomous region of Chechen in the Caucasus ; he 
worked at the food supply centre sorting potatoes. Once, when I 
gave him a piece of salted fish, he told me something of himself, 
looking at me distrustfully from under his bushy eyebrows; in the 
daytime his frenzied, demented stare became merely savage. The 
other prisoners, including his neighbours on the bunk, he treated 
with hostility. 

Collectivisation had deprived him of his small farm a few acres 
of arable land and some pasture on the slopes of the Caucasus. He 
was arrested in 1936 for refusing to give up a sack of his wheat and 
for killing two lambs from the collective herd which had been put in 
his care and then burying the quartered meat. His family a wife 
and three children were sent into exile to an unknown destination ; 
he did not know what had happened to them. During his inter- 
rogation he had stubbornly refused to reveal the hiding-place of the 
meat and the grain. He was beaten so cruelly that in 1941, after five 
years, his body was still covered with blue bruises, but he had clung 
to the idea that silence was the only revenge of which he was 
capable for the loss of his land and his whole life, and until the end 


he did not breathe a word. After the last hearing he was carried, 
unconscious, back to his cell, and several days later when it had 
become quite clear that he was willing to die rather than tell where 
he had hidden the meagre remnants of his own farm he was 
sentenced to fifteen years' hard labour and sent first to the Kotlas 
camp and then, in 1939, to the Kargopol camp. "What is there left 
for me" he said "besides death? I've no family, I'm too old to 
go back to the kolhoz, I'll never see the mountains again. . , . 
Every day I pray for death . . ." And every evening the old man 
drank his soup, spent a few minutes poking the fire, sometimes 
hiding his face, flushed with the blaze, in his knotted hands, climbed 
back on his bunk, said a short prayer, and went straight to sleep. 
And the curious thing was that he, whose guts had been "knocked 
out", never shrieked or moaned in the night; only occasionally he 
groaned quietly with the pain as he turned over on his side, or 
whispered deliriously in his sleep of death and God. . . . 

But he was not the type of prisoner that I had in mind when I 
started writing this chapter. I thought rather of those who are 
afraid of death and whose terror is transformed into the fear of 
night, not those who pray for it. It was not until toward the end 
of my imprisonment in the camp that I understood and experienced 
the emotions which make up this daily agony. 

Every prisoner knew, as he returned to the zone after work, that 
each day in the camp was costing him whole irretrievable years of 
health and physical endurance, and that his death was approaching 
with a speed which excluded the consciousness of dying when it 
finally caught him. Death in the camp, because it threatened 
constantly and struck suddenly and unexpectedly, seemed to break 
the laws of time and acquired a metaphysical inscrutability which 
placed it outside the rhythm of our material existence. A prisoner, 
after a time, found himself in that stage of decomposition where he 
breathed with difficulty, could not control his bowels but per- 
formed his natural functions where he lay, wept without cause 
whenever he was left alone for a moment, gripped his heart, 
squeezed in an iron band of pain, with a trembling hand, stumbled 
and tripped on a smooth path, swelled up with alarming speed, and 
vainly tried to chase fiery flakes from before his eyes. He went to 
the medical hut, and was told that he was perfectly well, that there 
was nothing wrong with him; but he knew what was wrong even if it 
was no disease with a name and symptoms. There is unfortunately 


no cure for complete physical exhaustion other than good, rich 
food and a long rest; the medical hut was no kitchen, and ad- 
mission to the mortuary was given only to prisoners with incurable 
heart disease, advanced consumption or pylagra, or serious 
vitamin deficiency which covered the whole body with ulcers. It 
may, therefore, have been an exaggeration, but every prisoner went 
to sleep with the thought that death would come upon him in his 
sleep that very night. He was afraid of its suddenness because he 
could not know when, how and from what causes he would die. 

A second reason of our fear of that death which we imagined as 
lurking behind the night's dark curtain was the very quality which 
in normal conditions usually robs it of some of its irresistible terror 
its community to all mankind. Every one of us felt helpless in 
face of the knowledge that on all sides were lying men just as 
defenceless and just as exposed to sudden attack as ourselves. Why 
this should be so, I cannot say, though presumably this helplessness 
divided us instead of bringing us all together. Only healthy men, 
secure in their own lives, can be moved by a sudden call for help 
from a dying man. In the barrack, where all prisoners were equally 
vulnerable, where all hearts were beating with the same difficulty, 
an agonised cry could only remind us of our own sickness, and 
passed unheeded. Defoe, in the Journal of the Plague Year, has 
described people who avoid each other for fear of infection. Our 
behaviour was the same, but without such clear motives. It was 
almost possible to believe, looking round our barrack at night, that 
death itself was contagious; we feared the risk of infection from 
others, carrying the germ in our own blood as we did. The presence 
of death was so strong and convincing that every prisoner seemed 
to hide within the brittle shell of sleep from the menace which was 
stealing towards him across the neighbouring bunks, afraid to 
remind it of his existence by even the softest sigh. We were united 
in an egotistical, silent conspiracy of death and we all accepted the 
understanding without talking about it, but we thought with horror 
that we would become its victims in our turn. We recalled moments 
when, without making the slightest movement, we had watched 
from under drooping eyelids as dead bodies were being carried out 
of the barrack at night and we knew that our own shrieks for help 
would fail to rouse the others from their defensive apathy. 

Death in the camp possessed another terror: its anonymity. 
We had no idea where the dead were buried, or whether, after a 


prisoner's death, any kind of death certificate was ever written. 
During my stay in hospital, through a window by the barbed wire of 
the zone I twice saw a sledge taking bodies out beyond the camp. 
It drove out along the road leading to the saw-mill, then turned 
suddenly to the left into a rarely-used path which had been trodden 
out years ago by the first brigades of Kargopol foresters, dis- 
appeared on the horizon, rising from the white plain of the snow 
like a speck of dust whirled into the air by the wind, and merged 
into the pale-blue outline of the forest. Here the extent of my 
vision ended and here our borderline between life and death was 
established. That melancholy funeral cortege was probably 
making for some abandoned forest clearing, whose whereabouts no 
one in the camp knew except the dumb driver of the hearse. We 
tried to find out from him where our prison cemetery lay, but the 
wretched Ukrainian could only shrug his shoulders, nod his head 
wistfully and, choking with the effort, bring up from his throat a few 
incomprehensible, meaningless sounds. Those who were familiar 
with his speech asserted that he was indicating the hunting lodge 
built a few years before at the place where the first camp road had 
come to an end, but this was not considered to be a likely possibility, 
if only because in winter no spade could have broken the frozen 
earth, while in summer the marshy clearing opened up in the heat, 
gradually swallowing into its depths the dilapidated hut, the bared 
roots of the trees and the wooden car track. The certainty that no 
one would ever learn of their death, that no one would know where 
they had been buried, was one of the prisoners' greatest psycho- 
logical torments. It is possible to be an atheist, to deny the 
existence of life after death, but even then it is difficult to reconcile 
oneself to the thought that once and for all the only material trace 
which prolongs human life and gives it a distinct durability in 
human memory will be wiped out. This aspect of the fear of death, 
or rather of complete annihilation, became a positive obsession with 
some prisoners. There were secret, many-sided agreements which 
laid on the party who survived the duty of informing the others' 
families of the date of death and the approximate place of burial; 
the barrack walls were covered with names of prisoners scratched in 
the plaster, and friends were asked to complete the data after their 
death by adding a cross and the date; every prisoner wrote to his 
family at strictly regular intervals, so that a sudden break in the 
correspondence would give them the approximate date of his death. 


All this however was not sufficient to still our anxiety at the thought 
that Soviet labour camps have robbed millions of its victims of 
the one privilege accorded to every death its publicity, and the 
desire which every human being subconsciously feels: to endure in 
the memory of others. * 

In the evening the conversations on the bunks reached the 
feverish tension of whispered farewells, and two or three hours later, 
about ten o'clock, gradually died down, still hissing here and there 
like burning embers extinguished with a bucketful of water. All was 
quiet, but sleep would not come to us for a long time. Some 
prisoners prayed, sitting on the bunks with their elbows on their 
knees, their faces buried in their hands. Others lay without moving, 
staring in silence at the faces of those lying opposite. The formless 
piles of human bodies, rags and blankets, lying only a moment ago 
in the corners of the barrack, spread out over the bunks like sand 
dunes formed by the regular ebb and flow of the waves. The light 
of the bulbs seemed to grow dim behind the clouds of smoke, and 
the dying fire gleamed alternately with black and red reflections. 
The white night flattened itself on the windows with icy flowers, the 
slippery planks of the paths creaked under the footsteps of the last 
passers-by. Straining one's ears, it was possible to catch the sounds 
of howling dogs and the clanging of buffers at Yercevo station. 
The camp was slowly being plunged in sleep. 

After midnight the strange nightly progression of noises began: 
first a snore, then whistling breaths and painful moans, low at first, 
then growing louder into one almost continuous lament broken 
only by occasional convulsions of dry, tearless sobbing which 
shook the prisoners on their bunks. Someone would shout violently, 
someone else would wake from his sleep and sit up, warding off an 
unseen attacker with both outstretched hands, then look round with 

* Since writing this chapter, I have met hi London a former Polish prisoner 
from Ostrovnoye who was there assigned for a few weeks to work at the 
death-registration office. He cannot recall the exact daily average of deaths 
there, but he remembers that in the office stood two cupboards the height of 
a normal man; one was filled with three vertical stacks of death certificates, 
the other contained only two and a half such stacks. Dead prisoners were 
brought into the office, each with his personal data written on a slip of paper 
tied round his ankle. It was my informant's job to write out, according to 
these data, the death certificates, of which he made three copies: one for 
GULAG, one for the camp, and one nominally for the deceased's family, 
though he knows that these last were never sent off. The bodies were buried 
in the 7th "sector" of the Ostrovnoye forest, in long trenches which were dug 
in the summer, since the ground was too hard in the winter, and gradually 
covered with earth during the year as they were filled up. 


an unseeing, oblivious gaze and, regaining consciousness, lie back 
again with a heart-rending sigh. The sleep-laden, disjointed 
babblings formed themselves into a sustained chant of "mercy, 
mercy", a background for the shouts, which mounted to a. shrieking 
crescendo in which appeals to God mingled with the names of 
distant families. Prisoners tossed and turned anxiously on their 
bunks, clutched at their hearts in sudden spasms of fear, and their 
bodies thudded on the hard planks. Only Dimka sat by his bucket 
unmoved, like the still centre of a tornado, and his faded eyes, 
long dried of tears, looked with indifference round this tangle of 
bodies caught in the bonds of the night. 

Like a phantom ship pursued by death, our barrack floated out 
into the moonless sea of darkness, carrying in its hold the sleeping 
crew of galley slaves. 


ONE evening, as the brigades were filing in through the gate into the 
zone, our attention was caught by a large notice, pinned to the "red 
table" or list of stakhanovites which was posted up at the crossing 
of the paths. "Eight o'clock. Film: 'The Great Waltz'. In the 
barrack of 'self-taught creative activities'." This was the second 
film to be shown in Yercevo, the first during my imprisonment 
there. A year before it was the Soviet historical film, "Minin and 
Pozharsky", when Mikhail Stepanovich had seen himself on the 
screen, eating a roast from the Tsar's table, as he sat, wiping his red- 
rimmed eyes, in a place of honour in the front row reserved for the 
free camp officials. There had been rumours about the new film for 
several months, but no one had believed them. "Cinema!" the 
prisoners would say. "A little extra soup, or a hundred grammes of 
bread, would do us more good." But these words did not express 
their true feelings; the cinema meant more to them than bread, and 
if they spoke of it contemptuously it was because they believed that 
only those desires to which outwardly one pretends to attach no 
importance can ever come true. 

The barrack of "self-taught creative activities" was situated near 
the kitchen, and when the peresylny was full it was also used to 
house prisoners in transit through Yercevo. The barrack and all the 
"activities" the very rare films and concerts which we always 
called "shows" were under the absolute control of the director of 
the "cultural and educational section", which was known, by its 
initials, as the "kaveche". Only a free official, or else a released 
criminal prisoner, could aspire to that high position, and his 
assistant was chosen from among the bytoviks. The appointment 
of criminal prisoners was a precaution against the possible con- 
tamination of prisoners by seditious literature and any anti- 
Soviet allusions ingeniously concealed in the amateur concerts 
which were organised from time to time. The precaution was un- 
necessary, and there was no danger of contamination. What the 
kaveche was pleased to call a library contained only many copies 
of Stalin's Problems of Leninism, several foreign-language pro- 



paganda works issued by the State Publishing House, a few sets of 
Russian classics, and several hundred pamphlets with the texts of 
speeches and resolutions made at the sittings of the Supreme Soviet. 
During my whole time in the camp I read the Collected Works of 
Griboyedov once, and Dostoevsky's The House of the Dead twice, 
and both these books had been lent to me in secret by other 
prisoners; in order to keep up appearances, however, I borrowed 
Stalin's Problems of Leninism, The Folklore of the Komi Republic, 
and the speeches of the Spanish revolutionary leader Dolores 
Ibbaruri (Passionaria), from the kaveche library. I remember that 
in Passionaria's book I came across and underlined in pencil a 
sentence dating from the period of the defence of Madrid : "Better 
to die than to live on your knees". From that time the book 
enjoyed great popularity in the camp until a N.K.V.D. com- 
mission of inspection from Vologda withdrew it from circulation. 
Apparently those proud words, which I had first heard at a meeting 
of my high-school communist group in Poland, had a different ring 
in captivity, and had to be suppressed. 

The camp authorities' anxiety about the theatrical performances 
was also unjustified. Even if there had been any intention of 
smuggling anti-Soviet allusions into a camp concert, there was 
virtually no material in which they could be concealed, for all 
conversational or dramatic interludes were forbidden and the 
show could consist only of musical items. But regulations had to 
be obeyed, and Kunin, a Moscow thief released after serving three 
years for larceny, was the director of our kaveche, assisted by 
old Pavel Ilyich, who, when I knew him, was serving the eighth year 
of a sentence for the murder of his brother. 

The kaveche office occupied a small hut near one of the 
barracks, and was reached by a rarely-used path next to the barbed 
wire. Inside Pavel Ilyich sat by the iron stove mending damaged 
books, or cutting out decorative patterns of coloured paper, or - 
inscribing in beautiful handwriting the names of stakhanovites for 
the red table, spread out before him. A prisoner who entered 
would instinctively assume a humble posture at the door: "Pavel 
Ilyich," he would say, "what about a little book?" "What sort of 
book?" the old man would ask without lifting his head with its 
snow-white hair from his work. "I leave it to you, Pavel Ilyich, as 
long as it is interesting." "You must talk to the director about 
that," our librarian would say, scratching his head in uncertainty. 


Kunin lived in the village, but took all his meals in the zone. Tall, 
slim, dressed in a cap with an upturned peak, a linen blouse and high 
boots, he moved about the camp with the ease and familiarity of an 
experienced prisoner. It was said that the sentence which he had 
completed in Yercevo in 1939 had been his third, though he himself 
never mentioned it. He would walk through the zone with a lively, 
energetic stride and pay frequent visits to the barracks, talking with 
the prisoners for several hours at a time, and though this was in a 
sense part of his duties, we could feel that he was thinking with 
nostalgia of the days when, in a ragged jerkin, he lay on an upper 
bunk among his friends, peering round the barrack with his rat-like 
eyes to see what else he could win at cards or to find a box which he 
had not yet inspected. "You must lead cultural lives, prisoners," he 
would repeat, smiling with superiority at the word "prisoners"; 
that must have been one of the sentences which he had learnt by 
heart two years before, when he had first been entrusted with the 
task of educating the prisoners. His attitude to Pavel Ilyich was in 
a way extremely moving. Once they had shared a barrack bunk, 
and now they ate their soup from the same can, Kunin shared his 
cigarettes with him, and would usually bring him half a loaf of 
bread or a little vodka from the village. Pavel Ilyich returned this 
friendship with blind obedience and devotion, and though we 
supposed that in private they called each other by their Christian 
names, in front of us he would never have dared to address Kunin 
as anything but "Citizen Director". Kunin liked this title and 
obviously attached more weight to it than to all his "cultural and 
educational" activities. He could not have lived away from the 
camp, but he did not intend to forgo the dignities which, after so 
many years of prison life, had raised him above the scum and the 
enemies of the people. Older prisoners who remembered him 
from those days said that he was making up for his unfulfilled 
hopes of becoming a brigadier. Late in the evening Kunin would 
send Pavel Ilyich back to the barrack and receive his prisoner- 
mistresses in the kaveche office. He changed them as frequently 
as^he had done when a prisoner, and there were jokes among the 
prisoners about his "educational and cultural activities" with 
newly-arrived girls, or about the "little school" which he could have 
started with the children that had been born to him on the hard 
bunks of the camp maternity barrack. 
The kaveche's entire activities consisted of lending books from 


the library and organising occasional shows. Kunin had 
probably never read a book in his life, but he knew the principles of 
their issue in the camp. The first question that was asked of a 
prisoner who went to the library was: "Section?" It was the section 
of the penal code under which they had been sentenced that was 
meant, for the politicals could read Stalin's book and the pro- 
paganda pamphlets only after a preliminary talk with Kunin, 
while criminal prisoners had access to political publications without 
limitation. This system satisfied the majority of those concerned: 
the criminals seldom felt the need to read anything except the 
announcements on the red table, while the politicals had a quite 
understandable aversion to studying the theory responsible for 
their imprisonment. From time to time, however, we would feel it 
necessary to see Kunin and ask for a copy of the Problems of 
Leninism, and then the conversation with our instructor took the 
following course: "Soviet justice does not deprive those who have 
erred of the right to understand their own mistakes. What political 
problem interests you most?" We would answer: "Collectivisation 
of the countryside," or "The problem of socialism in one country," 
or "Industrialisation." "Ah, Comrade Stalin gives an excellent 
exposition of that subject in the essay entitled . . ." Doubtless, 
Kunin had learnt by heart a guide to the Problems without 
knowing the book's contents, and he avoided all detailed discussion 
of it; neither would anyone have dared to embarrass him by a 
question concerning a "political problem" which Comrade Stalin 
had not touched upon. We all knew of Kunin's good relations with 
the Third Section, and for that reason we all wanted to be included 
in his list of readers of the book which, not unjustly, is regarded as 
the Bible of Soviet Russia. 

The procedure of book-lending, as so many other camp customs, 
was probably a vestigial reminder of the regulations drawn up in 
Moscow in the days when the camps were really intended to be 
corrective, educational institutions. Gogol would have appreciated 
this blind obedience to an official fiction despite the general 
practice of the camp it was like the education of "dead souls". 
Kunin, however, had greater ambitions; he had dug up somewhere 
a statute about the necessity of eradicating illiteracy in the labour 
camps, and he set about trying to organise evening classes for the 
prisoners. It was easy to imagine, as one saw him running round 
the barracks recruiting pupils, that, like Gogol's Chichikov, he was 


building up a fortune with the captured souls. But this was too 
much for the prisoners. It was one thing to go to the kaveche 
once in every few months, take out the first likely-looking book 
which they could not read anyway, and leave it, untouched, under 
the rags which served for a pillow; but only the bayonets of the 
N.K.V.D. could have induced them to learn reading and writing 
while struggling with hunger, exhaustion and death itself, and 
fortunately the evening classes were not compulsory. All prisoners 
solemnly assured Kunin that they had mastered the difficult art of 
reading and writing while they were at liberty, but on one of our 
rest-days it was still difficult to escape the numerous requests to 
write the prisoners' letters home for them. Meanwhile Kunin 
probably wrote in his reports to the authorities that in "his" camp 
illiteracy had been completely exterminated. . . . 

The concerts were the only activity of the kaveche which could 
count on the full and enthusiastic support of the prisoners. Among 
those freed from work by the doctors, Kunin was sure to find a 
sufficient number of volunteers to make decorations of coloured 
paper and hang them round the barrack of self-taught creative 
activities. The prisoners, especially the older men, did this with 
pleasure, as if they were adorning a church. When they came back 
to the barracks in the evening, they told us with excitement how the 
"theatre" would look, asking the foresters to bring a few fresh pine 
branches home with them and the saw-mill workers for sawdust to 
spread on the floor. On the day of the concert the "cultural" 
barrack looked really festive: the walls were decorated with paper 
patterns, green pine branches gleamed between the beams of the 
roof, and the planks of the floor were shining from energetic 
scrubbing and polishing. The prisoners took their caps off at the 
door, shook the snow from their boots in the passage outside, and 
took their places on the benches with ceremonious anticipation and 
almost religious awe. Then could be seen only long rows of shaved 
heads and folded hands like grey knots. In the barrack of self- 
taught creative activities politeness was obligatory, and women who 
came in late had seats in the first rows of the benches offered to 
them. There was never enough room on the benches for all the 
prisoners, and large groups of them stood in the doorway and 
against every wall. A short while before the beginning the con- 
versations died down, and from all sides of the barrack impatient 
voices called out: "Quiet, they're going to start." The entrance of 


Samsonov, surrounded by his staff, was the signal for Kunin to 
open the proceedings. 

He walked forward to the front of the stage, welcomed the 
officials with a bow, and silenced us with a gesture. "Prisoners" 
so began his traditional preface "Soviet justice is capable of 
forgiveness, and it knows how to reward honest work. The 
production plan set for the camp has been achieved. As a reward 
you are about to see . . ." (here came details of the show). "This 
act of lenience should encourage you to even greater efforts for 
our Soviet Fatherland, whose full citizens you yourselves will one 
day become." A murmur of satisfaction passed through the 
audience: the theatre was indeed like a foretaste of liberty. 

The first show that I saw in the camp was, as I have said, the 
American film based on the life of Strauss called "The Great 
Waltz". It was preceded by a short Soviet film about a group of 
Moscow students, all members of the Communist Youth Organisa- 
tion, who work on the land during their summer holidays. It was 
full of propaganda, speeches, declarations and songs in praise of 
Stalin, but it contained some beautiful camera work and a 
humorous episode which made the prisoners laugh till the tears 
rolled down their faces. One of the students, a Jew judging by his 
appearance and his accent, could not manage his spade on the 
first day of work, and folding his hands on the handle said: "A 
spade isn't for me. With me, it is the head that works, not the 
hands." The audience roared with laughter. "Look at the entitling 
Jew," the prisoners shouted. "He'd like to command, would he? 
And who'd do the digging then? Send him to the camp for a year or 
two, that would teach him!" But the film ended with the triumph of 
righteousness, the clumsy student came first in their socialist 
competition of work and with blazing eyes delivered a speech 
glorifying the State where manual labour had been raised to the 
highest position of honour. The audience of prisoners heard it in 
silence, unconsoled by its sentiments. Silence was the only weapon 
at our disposal, when every careless word could sound like a cry of 

"The Great Waltz", on the other hand, moved us deeply. I would 
never have believed that an average American musical, full of 
women in fitted bodices, men in tight jackets and frilly cravats, 
shining chandeliers, sentimental melodies, dances and love scenes, 
could reveal to me what seemed to be the lost paradise of another 


epoch. I held back my tears, my heart beat faster, my throat was 
choking, and I cooled my feverish cheeks with my hands. The 
prisoners watched the film spellbound, without moving; in the 
darkness I saw only wide-open mouths and eyes absorbing 
passionately all that was happening on the screen. "How beautiful," 
voices were whispering all around me. "So that's how they live 
outside." Filled with naive admiration, barred from that outer 
world, they forgot that the action of the film was taking place over 
half a century ago, and these images of the past became the for- 
bidden fruit of the present. "Shall we ever live like men again? 
Will the darkness of our tomb, our living death, never come to an 
end?" I heard these words by my side, so distinctly that someone 
must have whispered them in my ear, and though against the back- 
ground of prison slang the exaggerated language was unusual, at 
that moment I felt no astonishment. The decorated barrack, the 
figures weaving on and off the screen, the music, the concentration 
in the faces around me, the sighs which suggested an inner thawing, 
all pushed us back into the past and released the long-frozen 
sources of emotion. 

It was my neighbour on the bench, Natalia Lvovna, who had 
whispered these unusual words to me. I had known her for a long 
time, but only very slightly. I knew that she was employed in the 
camp accountants' office, even though her lack of any personal 
beauty should rather have qualified her for one of the forest 
brigades. In her middle twenties she looked already exceptionally 
old and ugly she had large, protruding eyes, sparse hair, flabby 
cheeks which were sometimes covered by a rash of brick-red spots, 
and a heavy, awkward figure. She was one of a small group of 
prisoners who were known in the camp by the abbreviation 
KWZD. These were the initials of the East China Railway, which 
was sold by the Soviet Government to Japan, or (officially) to the 
Government of Manchukuo, on March 23rd, 1935. All the 
Russians who had lived before that date in the territory traversed 
by the railway and who chose to return to Russia after the sale 
were at once arrested and sent to labour camps with ten-year 
sentences. The name of the East China Railway thus became a 
convenient abbreviation for the particular section of the Soviet 
penal code under which they had been convicted. Similar sets of 
initials (KRD counter-revolutionary activity; KRA counter- 
revolutionary agitation; SOE socially dangerous elements; SP 


social origins; PS industrial sabotage; SChW agricultural 
sabotage, etc.) created an unofficial jargon which allowed prisoners 
to learn quickly, without prolonged questioning, the nature of the 
offences of newly-met comrades. Those of the KWZD section 
differed from other Russians in that, although of the same 
nationality, their mental reactions and habits of thought were 
closer to those of foreigners than of their own compatriots, as if the 
greater part of their lives had been spent beyond the frontiers of 
the U.S.S.R. 

It was said that heart disease was responsible for Natalia 
Lvovna's post in the accountants' office. She had never confessed 
this to anyone, but her slow, careful step, the movements of her 
body, always controlled by a tense watchfulness, and her drawling 
speech, all suggested that she was concentrating on some inner 
suffering which, like a badly-healed wound, would be aggravated by 
any violent movement. But there must have been another reason 
why, even with heart disease, she was not sent out to heavier work 
and did not finish her life in the hospital after a few weeks of it, for 
she had nothing to offer except her kindness, goodness, patience and 
humility, all qualities of small value in the camp. I believe that, 
paradoxically, she was saved by her ugliness. No one was sufficiently 
interested in her to attempt to force her into submission by torturing 
her with work. In her own fashion she disarmed and gained the 
sympathy of all, even the urkas, by her great courtesy, her dis- 
interestedness, and her readiness to perform small services for 
anyone. In the camp human feelings most frequently revived when 
compassion satisfied the remnants of self-respect. Natalia Lvovna 
seemed to be so insignificant that her death, like her sad life, would 
have passed unnoticed. 

When the film ended, a crowd of prisoners tumbled out of the 
barrack. The night was beautiful, white, brilliant with stars the 
sky seemed to have been suddenly raised higher, as if a pair of giant 
hands had pushed it up and spread it out above the camp; in the 
frosty air our voices sounded almost gay, and our feet trod the 
fresh snow into the paths. From the barrack where we had watched 
the film, the ground fell in a gentle slope towards the barbed wire 
and rose again on the other side, on the horizon, in a hill beyond 
which, at midnight, we could hear the violent clatter of railway 
trucks and the piercing whistle of a passing train. The prisoners did 
not go straight back to the barracks, but stood in small crowds on 


the paths, with excitement recalling scenes from the film, arguing 
about the slightest details, imitating the gestures of the actors, and 
at the same time looking beyond, toward the hill which concealed 
the railway track from view, as if they had only suddenly realised 
that beyond it lay the liberty of which a fragment had been revealed 
to them on the screen. So little is needed to make one enjoy oneself 
in a human fashion ! It seemed as if there would be no end to these 
discussions, whose every word contained more meaning than the 
whole film. "Citizen Director!" the prisoners cried out as Kunin 
walked through the crowd "Thank you for the show! It's made 
me want to live again. . . !" 

Natalia Lvovna was crying. I walked beside her, embarrassed, 
slowly so as not to outstrip her and quietly so as not to frighten 
away her outburst of emotion. So far I had known her only by 
sight and by hearsay I could not know why she was crying. I 
thought that every woman in the camp must be crying at that 
moment, having seen so many dresses, dances, and love scenes at 
once. But at the bend of the path, where it turned off to the women's 
barrack, she stopped and, holding back her tears with an effort, 
asked : "Do you think that I'm crying because I long for that other 
life?" I looked at the ugly face, the fleshy cheeks now lined with 
thin wet streams, the enormous eyes, which behind the misty veil of 
tears were almost pretty, and hesitated. Then, meaning to please 
her, I said: "Why yes, Natalia Lvovna, you must have enjoyed 
dancing once." "Oh, no," she answered quickly, "I have never 
danced in my life. But I have been here in the camp for five years, 
and I still can't control myself whenever I think that it has all 
happened before, years ago ... that for centuries we have been 
living in the same house of the dead . . ." She looked at me 
carefully; I did not know what to say, for I was afraid that one 
careless word might graze her most personal feelings. Suddenly she 
said : "Please wait here, I want to bring you something," and walked 
to her barrack with a faster step. After a moment she returned, 
puffing with the effort, hiding something under her jerkin. "Please 
read this" her voice trembled "but don't tell anyone where you 
got it from. It is banned these days especially here," she added 
with a smile. I took a ragged, disintegrating book from her hand 
and looked at the cover: Dostoevsky, The House of the Dead, 
Petersburg 1894. 

Two months passed; during that time I read The House of the 


Dead twice, but I saw Natalia Ivanovna only from a distance in the 
zone, and greeted her always with a friendly wave of the hand. She 
looked at me with anxiety, as if she wanted to see from my ex- 
pression whether the book had made the expected impression on me. 
I avoided talking to her, though I would always regret my decision 
as I watched her walking slowly to her barrack, greeting everyone 
who passed with a polite nod. 

I avoided her because, from the moment when I read the first few 
pages of the book until I closed it for the second and last time at the 
final paragraph: "Yes, with God's blessing! Freedom, new life, 
resurrection from the dead ..." I lived in a state of trance, as if I 
had woken from long mortal sleep. The thing about the book was 
not Dostoevsky's ability to describe inhuman suffering as if it were a 
natural part of human destiny, but that aspect of it which had also 
struck Natalia Lvovna: that there was not the slightest break 
between his fate and ours. I read the book in the evenings, at night, 
and also in the daytime, robbing myself even of sleep. My heart beat 
like the clapper of a bell and my head hummed with a tumult which 
increased like the infinitely repeated echo of countless drops of water, 
which fall at regular intervals on to the same spot of the skull, and 
seem to crack it every time with the resounding blow of a hammer. 
It was one of the most difficult periods of my prison life. I read the 
book at night under cover of my jerkin, and in the daytime con- 
cealed it in the safest place on the bunk, under a loose plank near 
the head. I hated it and loved it, as a victim can become attached to 
the instrument of his torture. After my return from work I always 
looked anxiously to see if it was still in its place, but on the way to 
the barrack I subconsciously longed for it to disappear without 
return, that I might be free once and for all from this nightmare of 
life without hope. I did not know then that a mental condition of 
full consciousness is more dangerous in slavery than hunger and 
physical death. Until then I had lived like other prisoners, in- 
stinctively avoiding the necessity to come face to face with my own 
existence. But Dostoevsky, with his modest and rather slow story 
in which every day of hard labour drags on as if for whole years, 
swept me along with the tide of a black river of despair making its 
way through subterranean channels into eternal darkness. In vain I 
tried to swim against the overpowering current. I felt that I had 
never really lived before, I forgot the faces of my family and the 
landscapes of my childhood. On the stone walls of the cavernous 


labyrinth, dripping with water and gleaming in the darkness, I saw 
in a fever of the imagination only the long rows of names : those who 
had been here before us, who scratched the traces of their existence 
in the rock before they were finally swallowed up, with a hardly 
audible bubbling, by the slimy darkness. I could see them, on their 
knees, desperately gripping the slippery curves of the stone, rising 
for a moment and falling back again, calling for help in voices 
which broke out of them and vanished at once in the dead silence of 
the chasm, catching with bent fingers at every projection in the 
rock with a last attempt to jerk themselves out of the stream which, 
relentlessly carried everything and everybody towards the dark sea 
of predestination. And when, submitting at last, they fell to the 
bottom, the black wave brought others in their place, who stumbled 
as they had done under the burden of suffering, and struggled to 
escape from its fatal whirlpools and I knew that we were the new 
victims, that we too were being swept away. . . . 

The greatest torment of my state of half-sleep was the in- 
explicable fact that the laws' of time ceased to apply to it between 
the engulfment of our predecessors and our own struggles there was 
no pause* the stream was continuous. That is why it assumed the 
character of something inevitable of destiny in which, for those 
who stand by and watch, eternity is the batting of an eyelid, and for 
those condemned to our fate the batting of an eyelid becomes 
eternity. The most trivial details repeated themselves with night- 
marish accuracy: the prisoners of the House of the Dead, at the 
end of a free day, also whispered with terror: "Back to work to- 
morrow." I could not have gone on living in the camp for long with 
this feeling of endless fate haunting me. The deeper I drank of the 
poisoned source of The House of the Dead, the greater consolation 
did I find in the thought which first came to me that year: the idea 
of escape by suicide. 

Fortunately, Natalia Lvovna turned out to be an even more 
addicted reader of Dostoevsky than I was, for after two months she 
came to my barrack one evening, called me out into the zone, and 
said quietly: "I must have the book back, I can't live without it. I 
have no one in the whole world, and it means everything to me." 
Then, for the first and last time, she told me something of herself; 
before, I had only heard from other prisoners that her father had 
been shot by a firing squad immediately after his return to Russia 
from the territory sold to the Japanese. I went back into the 


barrack and took The House of the Dead from its hiding-place under 
the loose plank. I regretted having to give up this book, for it had 
opened my eyes to the reality of the camp, even though what I now 
saw had every appearance of death; at the same time I was secretly 
glad at the thought of release from the strange and destructive spell 
of that prose, so full of despair that life in it had become merely the 
shadow of an interminable agony of daily death. 

"You were quite right, Natalia Lvovna," I said, helping her to 
conceal the book under her jerkin. 

She looked at me with gratitude, and over her ugly face passed 
the shadow of almost happy excitement. 

"Do you know that from the moment when I got that book, here 
in the camp, my life acquired new meaning? Can you believe that? 
It sounds strange to draw hope from Dostoevsky! ..." and she 
laughed nervously, forcibly. 

I looked at her with astonishment. Somewhere in the corners of 
her large, unhealthily swollen eyes lurked a hardly perceptible 
gleam of madness. Her lips, trembling with cold, were twisted in 
a puzzling grimace, not a smile, nor yet a spasm of pain. She 
brushed away from her forehead the thin locks of hair, stuck 
together with snow and slightly frozen. I thought that she would 
burst into tears again, but she continued talking in a calm, even 

"There is always room for hope when life becomes so utterly 
hopeless that nobody can touch us, we belong to ourselves . . . 
Do you understand? We become absolute masters of our lives. . . . 
When there is no hope of rescue in sight, not the slightest breach in 
the surrounding wall, when we can't raise our hand against fate just 
because it is our fate, there is only one thing left to us to turn that 
hand against ourselves. You probably can't understand the 
happiness which I found in the discovery that eventually one 
belongs only to oneself at least so far that one can choose the 
method and the time of one's own death. . . . That is what 
Dostoevsky has taught me. In 1936, when I first found myself in 
prison, I suffered greatly, for I believed that I had been deprived of 
freedom because I had in some way deserved it. But now I know 
that the whole of Russia has always been, and is still, a house of the 
dead, that time has stood still between Dostoevsky's hard labour 
and our own, and now I am free, completely free! We died so long 
ago, though we still won't admit it. Just think: I lose hope when 


the desire for life awakens within me; but I regain it whenever the 
longing for death comes upon me." 

I turned round at the barrack door in order to be able to re- 
member her as she walked away. She walked through the zone 
slowly, her arms folded across her chest as if she was pressing her 
precious book, old and yellow like her own prematurely aged face, 
to her diseased heart. She squared her shoulders and stepped gently 
in her gum boots, and the snow covered her footsteps as she 
walked away. 

Of the next show, this time a concert given by the prisoners, 
we learnt earlier and not so suddenly, for they had been preparing 
it in the zone for several weeks beforehand. "They" were only three 
people, and Pavel Ilyich would come round the barracks as 
Kunin's envoy, to collect his small cast and take them off for a 
rehearsal at the kaveche office. Thus we knew roughly what the 
programme of this second camp spectacle would be. Tania, the one- 
time prima-donna of the Moscow Opera, was to sing Russian folk 
songs; Vsevolod Prastushko, a Leningrad sailor from the saw-mill 
brigade, would follow with a group of sailors' songs; and Zelik 
Leyman, a Jewish hairdresser from Warsaw, who in March 1940 
had crossed the River Bug into the Russian sphere of occupation, 
would end the concert with a violin recital. Of this concert trio two, 
"our Vsevolod" and Leyman the hairdresser, merit a closer 

The first was known as "our" Vsevolod because he was to some 
extent the camp favourite. In every barrack which he chose to visit 
in the evenings he was always greeted with friendly shouts and 
invitations to "share a bunk". He made himself at home every- 
where, and walked about in a sailor's vest with blue stripes, joking 
with the prisoners and smiling under his toothbrush moustache. 
Vsevolod had a whole repertoire of favourite sea-going re- 
miniscences; moreover, he thought of himself as a great baritone, 
but would not allow himself to be persuaded to sing on any 
occasion, for he valued his talent highly, and preened himself like a 
spoilt actress. "No, brothers, I don't sing when you like, but when I 
like. My voice isn't at anyone's disposal." He would be interrupted 
by laughter. "Then tell us a story, Vsevolod, you've travelled and 
seen a bit of the world. And then show us the circus, Vsevolod, 


dear soul. Show us the circus!" the prisoners asked in pleading 

Vsevolod willingly talked about himself, always starting from his 
early youth. His accounts were highly-coloured and exaggerated, 
but there were certain permanent elements which for lack of 
something better could be taken as the core of truth in his stories. 
He came from Minsk, and as a child of the streets he wandered 
about the country as a bezprizorny from his earliest years; when 
he was eighteen he was conscripted into a Leningrad regiment of 
marines. Then he was transferred to the merchant service, and 
spent three years travelling and seeing the world. He bragged about 
his voyages to distant lands, and it seemed that in every one of them 
he had had some unusual adventure, though frequently he muddled 
both places and events. One thing, however, was certain: he owed 
his imprisonment to a romantic escapade in Marseilles. He stole 
away from his ship, spent the night in a port brothel, and did not 
return until dawn. This was not his principal offence, for the ship's 
captain could always have ignored or hushed up the episode, but 
six months later a postcard from Marseilles, addressed to 
Prastushko, turned up in Leningrad. The prostitute with whom he 
had slept that night was probably a communist, and could not 
resist this opportunity of maintaining contact with someone from 
the Socialist Fatherland. Our Vsevolod paid twice over for his 
foreign contamination in Marseilles: with ten years' hard labour, 
and with syphilis. But the most astonishing thing was that he did 
not consider his punishment either unfair or undeserved. He would 
always finish the story sententiously: "Life, brothers, is like an 
ocean wave. If you stick to the crest, it will always take you to a safe 
shore, but if you allow yourself to be submerged, it will carry you 
farther out to sea." 

Vsevolod's "circus" was something quite exceptional. His chest, 
shoulders, stomach, and thighs were tattooed all over with a little 
assembly of acrobats, clowns, dancers, hoops and obstacles, lions, 
elephants, and horses with splendid plumes on their heads. When, 
coaxed by the prisoners, he had undressed completely, he sat down 
on a bench by the fire, and by dexterously flexing the muscles on his 
stomach or his thighs, on his chest or his biceps, contracting and 
relaxing them in turn, he brilliantly brought to life the most realistic 
circus performance: the lions jumped through their hoops in mid- 
air, the horses leaped over obstacles, the elephants stood up on their 


hind legs, the dancers twirled with frenzied twists of the body, the 
clowns in their tall caps and baggy trousers tinned somersaults, and 
a whole pyramid of acrobats walked carefully along the tight-rope. 
Vsevolod was a real artist; he became absorbed in his performance 
and forgot everything else, moved his arms rapidly like a virtuoso 
at the final chords of his cadenza, rolled his flesh frenziedly, and 
his short, stocky body seemed indeed to become a circus ring 
trampled in a fantastic orgy by men and animals. After ten minutes 
he would fall back exhausted, wipe the sweat oif his body with the 
striped vest, and look round at us triumphantly with his small 
cunning eyes, bristling his moustache under his flattened nose like a 
beetle. The barrack rang to the sound of applause, for the prisoners 
loved Vsevolod's circus, and after the performance gave him articles 
of clothing and even pieces of bread. "An artist," they would say, 
"a real artist. He has a whole kaveche in his pants." 

Zelik Leyman was an altogether different type of artist. We all 
knew him from the hairdressing hut next to the bath-house, where 
he worked with the old Yercevo barber, Antonov. Although he 
had been born in Warsaw and had spent his whole life there, he 
would never talk to us in Polish. Antonov confidently described 
him as an informer, and this seemed probable, as Leyman had 
miraculously avoided the fate of other Jews from Poland, who were 
driven in hundreds to a slow death in the forest. 

After the defeat of Poland in September 1939 the Jewish youth of 
the northern suburbs of Warsaw and the Jewish quarters of small 
towns and villages occupied by the Germans set out like a cloud of 
birds in the direction of the River Bug, leaving their elders to the 
German crematoria and gas-chambers, and seeking safety and a 
better life in the "fatherland of the world's proletariat", which had 
suddenly approached so closely to Warsaw. During the winter 
months of 1939-40 the Bug, along its whole course, was the scene of 
fantastic events, giving only a foretaste of what was inevitably 
approaching to plunge millions of the inhabitants of Poland in a 
five-year agony of lingering death. The Germans did not try to 
stop the escaping crowds, but with clubs and rifle-butts gave them a 
last practical lesson in their philosophy of the "race myth" ; on the 
other side of the demarcation line the Russian guardians of the 
"class myth", dressed in long fur greatcoats and peaked caps, and 
with fixed bayonets, met the wanderers fleeing to the Promised 
Land with police dogs and bursts of light-machine-gun fire. During 


the months of December, January, February and March, the 
crowds of Jews camped on the neutral no man's land of a mile on the 
eastern bank of the Bug, sleeping under the open sky, covered with 
red eiderdowns, lighting fires at night or knocking at the doors of 
near-by peasant huts to beg for help and shelter. In the farm- 
yards small barter markets sprang up clothing, jewellery, and 
dollars were given for food and help in getting across the river to the 
other side. Every peasant hut along the frontier became a small 
smuggling centre, and the populace of the neighbouring countryside 
prospered rapidly, blessing its unexpected good fortune. Every 
cottage was besieged by a crowd of shadows, peering in through the 
windows and tapping on the glass, and then returning, shrivelled 
and empty of hope, to their family camp fires. The majority 
returned to German-occupied Poland, and were swallowed up 
almost entirely during the next few years by the concentration 
camps of Auschwitz, Majdanek, Belsen and Buchenwald. Some of 
them, however, did not give up and remained on the banks of the 
river, waiting stubbornly for an opportunity to cross. Sometimes, 
at night, one would break away from the shapeless human mass, 
run several hundred yards across the snowy plain, and then, caught 
in the beam of a Soviet searchlight, fall on his face, hit with a 
machine-gun bullet. Then piercing wails mixed with outbreaks of 
spasmodic crying, hands were raised like the thin flames of the 
fires, angrily threatening the sky, then everything died down again 
into the silence of waiting. 

During these months many refugees managed to cross through 
gaps in the line of soldiers, and the once Polish, now Soviet, towns of 
Bialystok, Grodno, Lvov, Kovel, Luck, and Baranoviche filled up 
suddenly with young Jewish communists who, despite everything 
that they had gone through on the frontier, seemed to be rapidly 
regaining the dreams of a country free from racial prejudice which 
had caused them to immigrate. The Russians assumed indifference 
at first, then started recruiting for voluntary settlement in the depths 
of Russia, giving the Jews the choice of a Soviet passport or return 
to their original place of domicile. And then an extraordinary thing 
happened the same crowds who only a few months ago had risked 
their lives to enter the Promised Land now started a mass exodus in 
the opposite direction, back to the land of the Pharaohs. The 
Russians looked at this too with indifference, but they must have 
remembered the reactions of these candidates for Soviet citizenship 


to their first test of loyalty. In June 1940, after the defeat of France 
and the fall of Paris, the purges started in Eastern, Russian- 
occupied Poland, and hundreds of goods trains transported the 
Jewish lumpenproletariat of Polish villages to prisons and labour 
camps in Russia. Inside the camps they became the most bitter 
enemies of Soviet communism, more uncompromising in their 
hatred than old Russian prisoners and even the other foreigners. 
They exaggerated their hatred, as once they had exaggerated their 
love for it, with unequalled passion. They went out to work only to 
avoid being shot, but in the forest they sat warming themselves by 
the fire all day, working just hard enough to qualify for the first 
cauldron; in the evenings they rummaged in rubbish-heaps for 
something to satisfy their continual hunger, and died rapidly in the 
severe climate of the north with Biblical curses on their lips and the 
angry look of cheated prophets in their eyes. In Kargopol, they 
were usually all transported to the "penal" camp of the Second 
Alexeyevka, leaving in Yercevo only humble and obedient prisoners 
like Zelik Leyman. Zelik had drawn away from his bitter co- 
religionists and had decided, with similar exaggeration, to start life 
afresh in the camp. It was natural that he should be an informer, 
for he had obtained the hairdresser's job after barely two weeks in 
Yercevo, but, although it amused us while we were being shaved, we 
felt that it was unnecessary to treat us to speeches in praise of 
Stalin and the achievement of the October Revolution; doubtless 
he was promising himself an early release for his zeal. He was hated 
by the prisoners but they could not touch him, for as an informer 
he was protected and dangerous, and he seldom left the little room 
next to the barber's shop which he shared with Antonov. He was 
also saved from their revenge by the fact that he could play a 
violin beautifully. Many times, in the evenings, we would gather 
outside the windows of his room, to see Zelik standing before the 
mirror, leaning his large head, with a pale face, protruding ears 
and glassy colourless eyes, on the belly of the violin, and producing 
from it strangely beautiful and sad music. He saw us in the 
mirror and looked at our reflections with hatred and contempt. 
Sometimes we caught sight of our own faces in the mirror, and 
there was something moving, even tragic, in this exchange of our 

I went to the concert with Natalia Lvovna and Olga. Although 
the camp was passing through its worst period of hunger, the 


barrack of self-taught creative activities was full, and the 
prisoners' faces, though grey and swollen, contained a flicker of 
interest. But this time Kunin's inaugural speech was greeted with 
silence. Hunger breeds scepticism and disbelief, and the promise 
that we would one day become "full citizens of the Soviet Union" 
was repulsive and irritating when we could not know whether we 
would be alive to receive that privilege. We heard Kunin out 
calmly and with outward attention, holding back our shouts of 
protest. During the fiercest hunger (it must be understood that we 
were always hungry, but "real" hunger we called that condition 
when one looks upon everything around as something to eat) both 
sides the prisoners and the jailers lived in a tense atmosphere of 
instinctively increased watchfulness. Any careless reaction of anger 
might provoke an outbreak, so that we kept our hands over our 
mouths, and the guards theirs on the triggers of their rifles. It 
was like a savage war-dance in which the two warring groups, 
divided by the barrier of fire in the middle, sway for hours to the 
rhythm of a drum, staring at each other with distrust and gradually 
increasing fury. 

All three of us had, besides hunger, other sorrows to distract us. 
Olga, a month ago, had said good-bye to her husband, Professor 
Boris Lazarovich N., who left with a transport for Mostovitza, 
knowing that she was seeing him for the last time; Natalia Lvovna 
knew that, with "reductions" in the camp administration, the day 
was approaching when she would be forced into general work; for 
me, it was also only ten days since Misha Kostylev's tragic death. 
We decided to see the concert as it was such an unusual occasion, 
and because we knew that it was necessary to follow at any price the 
set routine of camp life as long as possible. Even Natalia Lvovna, 
who had avoided me since our last conversation about Dostoevsky, 
now let herself be persuaded, and came to the theatre accompanied 
by Olga. 

The lights went out in the barrack, and the stage was lit by three 
lamps in place of footlights. This was Kunin's innovation, and 
we welcomed it with a long sigh of admiration. The audience, 
plunged in darkness and silhouetted indistinctly against the light 
from the stage, looked like a team of miners in a flooded shaft. The 
waxen masks of their faces gleamed yellow against the background 
of ragged clothing and black fragments of the walls, and the half- 
open mouths seemed to be struggling with asphyxiation or calling 


for help rather than a concert. The air in the barrack was stifling; 
the stench of urine and excrement mingled with the peculiar, sickly- 
sweet odour of suppurating scurvy sores and rotting soaked clothes. 
Eyes red with exhaustion and blazing with hunger stared at the 
stage, fascinated. The concert began. 

The first to appear was Tania. She looked lovely in a white 
ruffled dress bordered with lace which Kunin had borrowed beyond 
the zone for the occasion. She held a coloured handkerchief in her 
right hand, and waved it during the songs or caught it with an agile 
movement of both hands as she accompanied the words with 
gestures. Her small face, with a little snub nose and enormous eyes, 
surrounded by a thick line of black hair, was again, as once on the 
stage of the Moscow Opera, gay and radiant with laughter. She 
opened with an enchanting Russian song about "full stops" whose 
whole charm lies not in its story but in the wonderfully rich verbal 
variations and word-play of which it really consists. She had not 
sung more than the first few bars when the foresters' brigade started 
hissing from their corner and loudly shouting: "Moscow whore!" 
Tania stopped and looked at the audience, panic-stricken; tears 
stood in her lovely eyes and we thought for a moment that she 
would run off the stage without finishing even that one song. 
Then, as if she had come to some desperate decision, she resumed 
the song, but her slight voice tried in vain to drown the two burning, 
stubbornly and rhythmically repeated words. "Tania, Taniushka," 
I heard Natalia Lvovna whispering next to me, and then Samsonov 
turned round in his seat in the front row, looked towards the 
shouting group, and everything was suddenly still and quiet again. 
Tania sang on, though she could not recover the freedom with 
which she had started the first song. The audience heard her out to 
the end with indifference, and when Tania finally curtsied, lowering 
her head on her bosom with a theatrical gesture, there was only 
scattered and very timid applause. Poor Tania! That failure must 
have hurt her bitterly, for it was her first appearance on a stage 
since 1937; but she had to pay for preferring a free man to a 
prisoner. . . . 

Vsevolod made close contact with his audience from the moment 
that he ran on to the stage energetically, wearing his sailor's vest 
and a sailor's cap with a ribbon and the gold lettering of "Red 
Fleet," the latter also borrowed beyond the zone. He stood still and 
putting his right hand to his forehead, began to look round the 


audience, as if trying to see the outline of distant land on the 
horizon from a crow's-nest. At this there was applause and 
laughter, and the prisoners shouted gaily: "Bravo, Vsevolod, a fine 
sailor, a wonderful sailor." Vsevolod bowed low and proceeded 
to "tune" his voice, snorting, coughing and feeling his throat with 
two fingers of his left hand. Evidently convinced that a true artist 
never sings without preliminary exercises, he always carefully went 
through all his professional ritual. The prisoners looked at each 
other and then back at the stage, shaking their heads in admiration: 
"Vsevolod knows what he's about, there's no doubt." 

The barrack walls suddenly trembled when Vsevolod started on 
his first song, from the Soviet film "The Children of Captain Grant". 
He roared splendidly, gesticulating with his hands and throwing 
his whole body into the performance, bristling his moustache and 
rolling his eyes so that they shone from the distance like two silver 
buttons. The prisoners held their breaths and listened with sincere 
appreciation. After the song "Smile, Captain, Smile", he sang 
several others, also songs of the sea, whose subject or names I have 
now forgotten, but each of which was rewarded with tumultuous 
applause. Finally he asked for silence with the gesture of a real 
actor and announced, for his finale, the song "The sea spreads wide 
and far". From the expression on his face I guessed that, unlike the 
previous songs, this would be a sad one. In the deep silence 
Vsevolod took up a position, turned sideways to his audience, 
stretched his hands out before him, and after a moment sang in a 
voice heavy with tears : 

"We shall follow the waves that play 
On the sea which spreads far and wide. 
Comrade, we are sailing away 
Far, far from Russian soil." 

When he had finished the verse and was about to repeat the refrain, 
he suddenly turned round to us and lifting his hands like a prison 
prophet, invited us to join in with a quick "All together now." And 
from several hundred throats burst a song, a cry of despair: 

"Comrade, we are sailing away 
Far, far from Russian soil." 


The prisoners stood up as if at a given signal and, watching 
Vsevolod's hands beating time, repeated as if enchanted those two 
powerful lines. All the faces were full of emotion, in some eyes I 
even saw tears. And though the words sung with such feeling were 
like a curse flung by galley-slaves chained to the "Russian soil", yet 
the singing itself was full of a boundless nostalgia . . . nostalgia 
and longing for the land of suffering, hunger, death and degradation, 
the land of great fear, of hearts hard as stone and eyes seared with 
tears, the barren desert of human longings. Then, as never before, 
I realised, if only for a short moment, that Russian prisoners live 
beyond the bounds of their Russia and, hating it, long for it and 
recall it with all the strength of their choking feelings. 

We had not completely recovered from Vsevolod's performance, 
and Natalia Lvovna was sitting next to me with her face buried in 
her hands, when Zelik Leyman, dressed in a dark suit which he had 
saved from liberty, came on to the stage. His bow was a trifle too 
stiff and superior, but as soon as he placed the violin against his 
shoulder, laid his head on it, and raised his bow with one hand, 
gripping the neck with the other, his features and his gestures 
became gentle and a shadow of sadness smoothed out his face. 
I can no longer remember what it was that he played, for my head 
began to ache intolerably, I felt the pangs of tormenting hunger, 
and hiding my face in my hands like Natalia Lvovna, I fell into a 
state of feverish indifference. I know only that Leyman's recital 
must have lasted a long time, for listening to the sounds of the 
violin, reaching me dimly as if through a padded wall, I had time to 
dream through the whole of that period of my life when, as a young 
boy, I stood in the street of my native provincial town in Poland and 
listened to the melodious laments and waitings for the destruction 
of Jerusalem which on every Judgment Day came from the smoky 
window-panes of the dilapidated synagogue. Zelik Leyman was so 
Jewish himself, he seemed to sob with his violin, he glorified himself 
and then suddenly relapsed into humility, he was afire with 
vengeance like a burning bush, angrily sweeping the bow over the 
strings, he prayed zealously with his face turned towards that 
quarter of the world where, on the ruins of Jerusalem, the Promised 
Land was to flourish again with olive groves: he sang his own fate 
and that of his nation, a fate which drew no distinction between 
love and hatred. 

I came to, half-conscious, when I heard the sound of applause. 


Zelik Leyman was bowing mockingly, and his thin, tight lips were 
smiling with contempt. The prisoners began to get up from the 
benches, and, still applauding, made their way towards the door. I 
turned to Natalia Lvovna, but her place was empty, and someone 
told me that she had felt weak and had left the theatre at the 
beginning of the violin recital. Dragging our legs heavily, we 
crowded in the foul air towards the door, and into the spring night 
which had already lit all the stars and brought a sharp, refreshing 
breath of thawing nature. 

Several weeks after this memorable concert, shortly before the 
outbreak of the Russo-German war, there was a sudden rumour in 
the camp that Natalia Lvovna had tried to commit suicide by 
cutting her veins with a rusty penknife. Her neighbour on the bunk 
gave the alarm to the guard-house in time, and Natalia Lvovna was 
taken to the hospital, where she spent over two months in slow and 
unwilling return to life. After leaving the hospital, she did not go 
back to the camp accountants' office, but worked for a time in the 
kitchen, though she was soon dismissed for taking food out to 
prisoners. Then she was assigned to the supply centre, where she 
darned torn sacks, but by that time I was already working at the 
timber depot. I saw her often in the zone, and greeted her as usual 
from a distance, but we never exchanged another word. There are 
secrets which unite people, but there are also secrets which, in case 
of failure, separate them. 


"As for telling tales in general, it is very common. 
In prison the man who turns traitor is not ex- 
posed to humiliation; indignation against him is 
unthinkable. He is not shunned, the others make 
friends with him; in fact, if you were to try and 
point out the loathsomeness of treachery, you 
would not be understood." 

DOSTOEVSKY The House of the Dead. 


THE outbreak of the Russo-German war was responsible for some 
essential changes in my life: on June 29th, together with other 
foreigners and Russian political prisoners, I was taken off work at 
the food supply centre and sent to the newly-created 57th brigade, 
which was to work at haymaking in the forest clearings during the 
summer, and in the autumn and winter to help in the saw-mills and 
with the loading of felled trees on to open railway trucks. 

The last week which I spent at the centre, however, allowed me to 
observe the effects of the German surprise attack, and the un- 
disguised psychological anxiety with which the camp's garrison and 
administrative staff met the news of the outbreak of war. The first 
reaction was a mixture of astonishment and fear; only Mr. 
Churchill's declaration, from which we gathered that "England is 
with us, not against us", brought some relief. The guard attached 
to our brigade greeted the news with a loud "urra", throwing his fur 
cap and his rifle with bayonet fixed into the air, and began to 
assure us excitedly that "England has never yet lost a war," clearly 
forgetting that only a few days ago England had been a "little 
island" which the Germans "could cover with their hat." A similar 
change of attitude, although of course in a much more intelligent 
form, was noticeable in the tone of the Soviet radio. News 
bulletins and political commentaries, which until recently had 
welcomed every German success in the West with wild ac- 
clamations, now overflowed with anti-German propaganda and 
cooed gently whenever they mentioned England or the occupied 
countries. So, externally at least, appeared the change of dancing 
partners. But actually we had already heard and recognised earlier 
the murmurs of the approaching storm. We did not ignore the 



meaning of the communique which Tass, the Soviet Press agency, 
issued during the first days of June. It was a "categorical denial of 
rumours, current in the West, that several Siberian divisions had 
been moved from the Far East to the banks of the River Bug" 
(which was then the boundary between Russian- and German- 
occupied Poland). The agency report calmly reassured its listeners 
that the army movements in question were made within the frame- 
work of normal summer manoeuvres, and that the good-neighbourly 
relations of Germany and the Soviet Union, cemented by the pact 
of August 1939, could not be destroyed by the shameful intrigues 
of Western warmongers. The engineer Sadovski, once the friend of 
Lenin and Dierzhynski and vice-commissar for light industry in 
one of the Russian post-revolutionary governments, bent close to 
me and whispered in my ear that the denials of Tass are to intelligent 
people in Russia what positive newspaper reports are in England or 
France. The outbreak of war itself did not surprise Sadovski at all; 
but he would not make any prophecy as to its further course or 
outcome until the first month of the fighting had elapsed. 

On the day after the first German attack on Russia, we were 
gathered outside the wooden hut which served as an office at the 
food supply centre, to hear Stalin's speech on the radio. It was the 
speech of a broken old man; he hesitated, his choking voice was 
full of melodramatic over-emphasis and glowed with humble 
warmth at all patriotic catch-phrases. We stood in silence, our eyes 
on the ground, but I knew that every prisoner there was suddenly 
thrilled by a spasm of hope, with that bewildered blindness of 
slaves for whom any hand which opens the prison gates is the hand 
of Providence itself. During the first few weeks of the war we 
talked of the fighting rarely and surreptitiously, but always in the 
same words: "They are coming!" It is a measure of the bestiality 
and despair to which the new system of slavery reduces its victims 
that not only the thousands of simple Russians, Ukrainians and 
nacmeny, for whom the Germans were the natural ally in their 
struggle against the hated labour camps, but also almost without 
exception all European and Russian communists, worldly, educated 
and experienced men, awaited from day to day with impatience and 
excitement the coming of Nazi liberators. I think with horror 
and shame of a Europe divided into two parts by the line of the 
Bug, on one side of which millions of Soviet slaves prayed for 
liberation by the armies of Hitler, and on the other millions of 


victims of German concentration camps awaited deliverance by the 
Red Army as their last hope. 

The only free men whom I had an opportunity to observe, the 
camp guards, reacted, naturally, in quite a different fashion to the 
news of the German advance. For them the whole problem was 
summed up in the question: "Quis custodiet custodes?" They 
passed from the first instinctive anxiety about the fate of their 
"Socialist Fatherland" (which in Russians, in my opinion, has the 
character of an organic inferiority complex towards the Germans), 
to uncertainty about closer and more tangible matters, their own 
particular fate. Their fear was that, to meet the demands of the 
front, staff reduction might begin in the camp, in other words that 
they might be forced to give up an easy and secure job in the north 
to spend their time wandering about in the trenches. After the first 
two weeks of the war the position was made clear in the most un- 
expected way. There was something incredible in the arrival at 
Yercevo of fresh contingents of young and healthy N.K.V.D. 
soldiers* to strengthen the garrisons of camps on the shore of the 
White Sea, while at the same time the names of the towns men- 
tioned in the wireless communiques made it quite clear that the front 
was rapidly moving eastward. Now brigades of twenty prisoners 
walked out to work guarded by two armed soldiers, f and the first 
blood that the camp laid at the altar of its threatened fatherland 
was the declaration of total war on potential internal enemies. 
Thus all politicals were removed from responsible technical posts, 
and replaced by free officials; all German prisoners from the Volga 
settlements were transferred from camp offices to the forest 
brigades, where, however, they were treated with great respect by 
the Russian prisoners, who believed that they would soon rule the 
country; all foreign and political prisoners were taken off work at 
the food supply centre, to prevent any danger of poisoning the food 
destined for co-operative stores outside the camp; the sentences of 
all who had been suspected of spying for the Germans were 
doubled, the liberation of political prisoners who were due to be 
released soon was postponed indefinitely, and several Polish 
officers, naturally suspected of pro-German sympathies, were 

* The N.K.V.D. commands a powerful and quite independent army. 

t If there were then twenty million prisoners in the camps, this must have 
cost the Soviet command about a million picked soldiers, who made no con- 
tribution to the war effort. 


placed in solitary confinement. The camp breathed freely again, 
and the wave of Russian patriotism, which had receded in the terror 
and fear of the firstweeks, flowed back. The patriotic self-confidence 
of the camp garrison was doubtless greatly influenced by a certain 
occurrence which I witnessed during the last day of my work at the 
food supply centre. We unloaded that day a truckful of Lithuanian 
pork, packed in jute wrappings stamped with the German import 
stamp. That load evidently did not reach its original destination, 
and after long wanderings finally arrived at Yercevo. To com- 
memorate the outbreak of the "War for the Fatherland" the pork 
was divided equally between the speclarok the shop supplying 
the ten highest officers of the camp command and the modest 
shop near the camp zone for the administrative staff and the 

A month passed and nothing happened. Once, when we were 
haymaking, Sadovski was asked for his conjectures of the future. 
He took a few twigs, two handfuls of hay and some berries of 
different colours, spread them on the grass, and opened a fascinating 
lecture. In his opinion, the first four weeks of the fighting would be 
decisive. While listening to official Soviet communiques, it was 
necessary to keep before one's mind the map of Russia in order to 
determine the speed of the German advance. If the advance was 
very rapid, it was a bad sign, if only moderately quick then there 
was nothing to fear. The defeat of Russia could only be possible if 
signs of inner demoralisation accompanied defeats at the front. 
If the Red Army retreated in such panic and at such speed that it 
could only be held back by the bayonets of the N.K.V.D. Army in 
the rear, then, finding itself between two fires, it would turn round 
against its own rulers and start a civil war in Russia itself. But 
nothing of the kind was actually happening. Soviet forces were 
retreating in proper order, and could retreat like that right up to the 
Urals, where for years a reserve centre of war industry had been 
built up, at the cost of great technical effort and human lives from 
the Ural labour camps, with just such a possibility in mind. The 
circumstances of Russia's final victory over the Germans would 
depend on the military and political tactics of her Western allies. 

This view of the situation appeared to me to be quite logical and 
accurate, and I accepted it as my own. My own position had 
altered greatly since the signing of the Polish-Russian pact of 
July 1941, and the declaration of a general amnesty for all Polish 


prisoners in Russia. I could now desire Russian defeat only from a 
feeling of revenge, not from any logical reasoning or on the basis of 
any particular feeling towards the Germans. I found myself among 
the fifteen or twenty out of the two thousand prisoners in Yercevo 
who in face of continuous Russian defeats had the courage to 
believe and say loudly that Russia would not lose the war. Later I 
had to pay dearly for my opinion when brought before the Third 
Section of the N.K.V.D. 

The situation of Poles in Russia was greatly altered by the 
Sikorski-Maiski pact and the amnesty. Before the Russo-German 
war broke out we were regarded as ' 'anti-Nazi fascists", and 
cowards because we had been defeated so easily by the Germans; 
from the beginning of the war in June, until the end of July, we 
were just ordinary pro-Nazi fascists and, since Russia herself was 
suffering heavy defeats, perhaps not such cowards after all; in 
August, when the pact was signed, we suddenly became fighters for 
freedom and allies. The guard of the 57th brigade, who, I was told, 
before that time had not spared Poles many insulting reproaches 
for their defeat in 1939, patted me on the back when the news of the 
amnesty came and said: "Well, my boy, now we'll fight the Germans 
together." This sudden reconciliation did not please me for two 
reasons: first, a prisoner can never forgive his warder, and second, 
it turned against me my fellow-prisoners, both Russian and 
foreign, who were not fortunate enough to have been born Poles, 
and to many of whom I had become attached more deeply than to 
any of my own compatriots. After the amnesty other prisoners 
became hostile towards the Poles, regarding them from that time as 
potential allies in the hated task of defending Soviet prisons and 
labour camps. 

In December 1941 we heard Stalin give another and very different 
speech. I shall never forget that strong voice, cold and penetrating, 
those words hammered out as if with a fist of stone. He said that the 
German offensive had been arrested at the outskirts of Moscow and 
Leningrad, that the day of victory over German barbarism was 
approaching, and that the thanks for this must go not only to the 
heroes of the Red Army, to airmen, sailors, partisans, workers and 
farmers, but also to those who guarded "the rear of the war for the 
Fatherland". The prisoners, collected in the barracks to hear the 
speech, listened to it with expressions of helpless despair on their 
faces, while I thought of Sadovski's theory and the reinforce- 


ments of N.K.V.D. troops with which the garrisons of the Kargopol 
camp had been supplied just after the declaration of war. Yes, even 
here, we were a part of the "rear of the war for the Fatherland". 

That is the background of the incident which I witnessed during 
the first days of July 1941 in the technical barrack at Yercevo. This 
barrack was situated at the turn of the path which led from my 
barrack to the guard-house, and was inhabited exclusively by 
prisoners whose professional qualifications made them indispens- 
able to the authorities, who assigned them to special functions in the 
camp. Most of them were technical experts and engineers with 
higher education and training, though there were also a few 
humanists who exceptionally, and only because of their high 
qualifications, filled minor posts in the camp administration. 
Assignment to the technical group gave certain privileges in the way 
of housing, food and clothing, which, needless to say, were not 
granted to prisoners, even with the highest education, who worked 
in the labour brigades and lived in ordinary barracks. The technical 
barrack was more comfortable than the others, with spaces between 
the individual bunks and a solid table at either end; the "technicals" 
received waterproof blouses of sailcoth and high jute boots, and 
the special iteerovski cauldron, equal in amount to the third 
stakhanovite cauldron, but strengthened with a spoonful of 
vegetable fat and a portion of "cyngotnoye", chopped-up raw 
vegetables. In the undeveloped social structure of the camp the 
technicals were thus an aristocracy of the second degree, without 
the power over other prisoners which belonged to the urkas who 
overran the executive departments of the administration, but 
nevertheless distinctly elevated by their privileges and style of living 
above the grey mass of the slave proletariat. All the technicals had 
been sentenced to ten or fifteen years for counter-revolutionary 
activities, and from the moment war was declared they were 
"assisted" in their functions by uneducated free assistants. Zyskind, 
a Red Army lieutenant, who was serving only two years for stealing 
regimental funds, remained in charge of the solitary confinement 
prison within the camp zone. 

The special cauldron carried with it a tacit condition sine qua non, 
from which only the indispensable experts with very high quali- 
fications were free the obligation to spy and denounce for the 


N.K.V.D. No one was surprised at this and no one was shocked 
after all, night always follows day. Every Wednesday evening a 
handsome Russian woman with a bulging brief-case made her 
appearance in the barrack this was Senior Lieutenant Strumina of 
the N.K.V.D.'s Third Section. Like a priest who visits a lonely, 
distant village to say a quiet mass, she greeted all passing prisoners 
with a gentle, polite "zdrastvuytie" which from her sounded like the 
old country form of greeting, "God be with you". In a small room 
adjacent to one of the barracks she would instal her travelling 

I had several friends in the technical barrack. Fienin, a well- 
known hydro-electric engineer, often talked to me with sympathy 
of conditions in Poland under German occupation; I played 
chess with Weltmann, an engineer from Vienna; Makhapetian, an 
Armenian engineer, was my closest friend and like a brother to me; 
Yerusalimski, a historian who had once carried on a bitter academic 
controversy with Professor Tarle, the leading Soviet historian, and 
now would not be parted from his more fortunate opponent's 
"Napoleon", became my friend through Makhapetian. Only a pair 
of inseparable friends, Doctor Loevenstein and the Russian airfield- 
constructor Mironov, treated me with reserve and suspicion. They 
were known throughout the camp as "the two Gorkists", because 
they were both serving ten years for Gorki. Loevenstein, a good- 
natured, fat man in gold spectacles, had been Gorki's doctor during 
the great writer's last years, and his presence in the camp seemed to 
give the lie to all rumours that the old bard of the October Re- 
volution had been poisoned;* Mironov, close and silent, was 
unfortunate enough to be responsible for the construction of the 
airfield from which the huge new Soviet plane "Gorki" took 
off on its trial flight, only to come to pieces in mid-air after a few 

Thanks to Makhapetian, I had a standing invitation to the 
technical barrack at any time of the day or night. I took advantage 
of this, perhaps straining the laws of hospitality, to visit it almost 
every evening, so eager was I for intelligent conversation, for the 
formulas of politeness now so rare, and for that particular atmo- 
sphere of sarcastic mockery which accompanies any larger gathering 
of intellectuals. Exhausted by the absurd nightmare of the Soviet 
system, I could find a moment of relief and nervous relaxation only 

* See Appendix I. 


in the technical barrack. Its inhabitants looked on everything 
which happened to them and around them as a farce in rather bad 
taste, in which the criminals take the parts of policemen, while the 
policemen sit handcuffed against the wall. Only in the periods of 
hunger and increased terrorism the laughter in the barrack died 
down, and instead could be heard whispers from the wings about 
the further acts of this already over-long tragi-comedy. This made 
me wonder just what these men related as information to Lieutenant 
Strumina each of them had already whispered enough to his 
neighbour to have earned him a second sentence if it had been 

One stifling July evening we sat playing chess at one of the tables 
Loevenstein with Mironov, I with Weltmann. The barrack was 
still and quiet. Some of the technicals slept, Makhapetian and 
Yerusalimski were writing letters on their knees, Zyskind read a 
book lying on his bunk, his legs resting on the ledge of the bunk 
above. Weltmann would always beat me mercilessly at chess, but 
he liked playing with me, for, like every bungler, I calculated 
several moves in advance, aloud and in German, and this gave 
Weltmann the illusion that he was sitting on a calm Sunday in his 
"kaffenhaus", carefully studying the chess corner of the "Wiener 
Zeitung" with a group of friends. Punctually at midnight the 
wireless loudspeaker was switched on to broadcast the news 
bulletin. We did not interrupt our game until the barrack door 
opened with a clatter, and a young engineer, whose name I have 
now forgotten, staggered into the room, clutching the bunks for 
support with uncertain hands. The speaker had just finished read- 
ing the Supreme Command's Order of the Day, and had started on 
the communiques from the front. He had to tell us only that Soviet 
planes had brought down thirty-five of the enemies', and that the 
infantry, in a courageous counter-attack, had recovered two 
villages in the Ukraine. The newcomer listened to this, leaning 
against a vertical beam, one leg crossed over the other. When the 
loudspeaker was disconnected, he shook himself all over like a wet 
dog, and with the reckless daring of the drunk, shouted loudly: 
"It would be interesting to hear how many of our planes the 
Germans have brought down!" 

The barrack became so still that I could hear the sound of a 
chessman sliding on the board of the "two Gorkists" and the 
rustling of Makhapetian's notepaper. Zyskind closed his book 


violently, jumped off his bunk, and went out of the barrack. 
The young engineer pushed himself away from the beam, threw 
himself on to the bench by our table, and laid his head on his folded 
arms. From the neighbouring board a chessman, shaken by the 
sudden jerk of the table, fell off on to the floor. Mironov picked it 
up and quietly hissed: "If you're fool enough to get drunk, stuff a 
gag in your mouth." The drunk lifted his head for a moment and 
waved his hand heedlessly. A quarter of an hour later he and 
Makhapetian were taken away by two junior officers from the 
Third Section. 

We played on as if nothing had happened, stopping only when 
Makhapetian returned, to hear his story. In a voice breaking with 
emotion, he told us that, in the presence of Zyskind, he had to 
verify and sign the text of the words spoken by the accused. 
Zyskind came back about one o'clock and, without looking at 
anyone, lay down in his former position on the bunk, his face 
hidden from us by the open book. Weltmann was just about to 
mate for the second time that evening, when we heard the sound of 
a shot beyond the zone, instantly lost in the woolly wrappings of 
the night. I felt stifled and sick: Weltmann's face looked old and 
shrivelled with fear. 

"A war tribunal," he whispered, holding by the mane a wooden 
knight ready to jump. 

"I resign your game," I said, scattering the pieces on the board 
with a trembling hand. 

Zyskind read on unperturbed, while our neighbours went on with 
their game: Loevenstein hanging over the board like a bird of prey, 
Mironov with his elbows against the edge of the table, his head 
hunched into his shoulders. 

"Check and mate," Loevenstein shouted triumphantly after a 

"Oh, but I didn't notice that bishop," protested Mironov, using 
the German word "laufer", which, as we all knew and as we all 
understood it then, also means a "runner", or "henchman". 

"Well, that's it mate. One should always keep one's eyes open 
when playing chess." 

Then Loevenstein turned towards the bunk where Zyskind was 
lying and, wiping his spectacles with a handkerchief, said with a 
hardly noticeable gleam of sarcasm in his eyes : 

"Did you hear the news, Comrade Zyskind? Of us all, only you 


have the chance of standing soon in the ranks of our country's 
defenders, and . . ." he hesitated, "I do sincerely envy you. As 
for those sick in the prison, please bring them round to the medical 
hut tomorrow after the morning roll-call." 
Zyskind lowered his book and nodded his head in agreement. 


The way to work led by a narrow and winding path, round the 
food supply centre, through a damp clearing near the camp, then 
by a wooden track through a small copse, then along another path 
through three new clearings near a ramshackle, rotting hut which 
had once served as a tool-shed, then across a peat-bog and a 
wooden bridge over the stream, then by zigzagging paths through 
another wood, and finally into an enormous field where, after the 
snows melted, broad, sharp marsh grass grew towards the sun, 
reaching up to the waist of a short man. 

Dear God, haymaking! Could I ever have dreamed, when, as a 
young boy, I learnt to scythe for fun in my native countryside, that 
I would one day earn my keep this way. . . . And yet I remember 
that summer with great emotion and happiness, for then I felt an 
intensity, a freshness of experience such as writers call the inner 
resurrection, which I have never felt again. It was almost a year 
since I had been out so far beyond the camp zone, and as once I had 
felt the blades of grass during the only period of exercise which I 
was allowed in the Grodno prison, so now I touched with beating 
heart the flowers, the trees and the hedges. Though the road was 
difficult and long (about three miles each way), I would walk out at 
dawn with the brigade in single file, with a light and springing step, 
and in the evenings I returned sunburnt, exhausted, full of fresh air, 
berries and the beauty of the landscape, drunk with the smell of the 
forest and of hay like a gad-fly which stumbles on its thin little 
legs when the horse's blood has gone to its head. 

In command of brigade 57 was the old joiner Iganov, the one 
who always prayed till late into the night on his bunk, a quiet, 
calm man, helpful and passionately devoted to farmwork. He 
never took advantage of the usual privileges of a brigadier; every 
day, having written on a wooden tablet the names of all his workers, 
he took up a scythe and stood with the rest of us in the row, and it 
was only an hour before we packed up that he left us in order to 
pace out with even strides the area that each of us had mowed. 


Every evening he would sit down in the barrack and compare the 
work done that day by each prisoner in his brigade with the 
officially-prescribed norm; these figures he submitted to the camp 
office, where prisoners' rations were allotted according to working 
capacity. Both guards usually slept most of the day in the haycocks 
by the edge of the field, so that often from where we worked we 
could see only the gleam of their bayonets and the tips of the 
sharpened poles which strengthened the haycocks with the 
traditional branches of red-green sorb placed on top. We lived 
quietly and pleasantly. When we marched out at dawn we could 
see the last stars twinkling dimly in the opal sky, and the whole 
zone was grey. After an hour's walk the sky began to take on the 
colour of a pearly shell, pink and blue at the edges and white in the 
middle. Sometimes, when entering the field, we surprised a herd of 
elks grazing, and long after, as we were replacing with our forks the 
hay which they had pulled off and trampled about, we could hear 
the sound of their hooves as they raced away. And once Iganov 
showed us, at the edge of the forest, a large lair, trodden out in the 
moss, with wisps of fur and half-eaten bunches of berries scattered 
round it, and putting his nose carefully to the still steaming excre- 
ments, told us that not half an hour ago one of the huge Arch- 
angel bears had lain there. As soon as the sun rose from behind 
the forest, we would spread out across the field like beaters before a 
hunt, and with wide sweeps of our scythes begin to cut down the 
waving grass, leaving behind us long rows of hay, even as furrows of 
newly-ploughed earth. About nine we stopped work for fifteen 
minutes; one small whetstone was passed from hand to hand and 
its rough underside caressed in a sweeping arc the gleaming edges of 
our scythes. When the whistle blew at the saw-mill in the camp at 
midday, we dispersed in twos and threes and, lying under the hay- 
cocks, we ate bread, which we had saved from the previous day, 
with a few berries. Then we went to sleep and slept so deeply that 
at one o'clock the harassed Iganov had to shake our legs violently to 
wake us. 

The northern summer is short, stifling and heavy with the 
poisonous exhalations of marshes and bogs. During the afternoon 
the sky crystal-clear at dawn and inflated like a full sail at evening 
wrinkles and shimmers in the heated air like the ashes of tinfoil 
held over the flame of a candle. Many times, alarmed by the clouds 
of black smoke rising from behind some copse, we ran with our 


guards to near-by clearings to put out fires of turf, dry moss and 
wood chips which the burning torch of the sun had ignited. In the 
first days of September the northern rains begin, and continue 
throughout the whole month. I remember the emotion I felt when, 
on the last day of the haymaking, we all ran to the dilapidated way- 
side shed to take shelter from the storm of rain and hail which had 
surprised us. Drenched to our shirts, we stood under the rotting 
roof on which the hail bounced loudly, while the warm, autumn 
storm raged outside, and the shutters banged in the wind and 
turned with a screech on rusty hinges, giving us glimpses of the 
green clearing, the bent tops of trees and the sky dappled with pink 
streaks of lightning. I poked the ashes with a stick and I felt that 
tears were mingled with the drops of rain which streamed down my 
cheeks and into my mouth. It was sufficient to turn one's back on 
the two figures with guns to feel oneself quite at liberty. But the hay- 
making was over, a month had passed since the amnesty of Poles 
was first announced, hundreds of them were leaving the camps every 
day, yet I was returning for the last time from the fields and woods 
where I could feel alive, to the wired camp zone where death 
shares one's bed. 

During the haymaking I made friends with the old bolshevik, 
Sadovski. I liked him for a certain inner truthfulness, a fanatic 
solidarity in camp life, and a sharp intelligence which he delighted 
in using to split the proverbial hair into four. Sadovski despite 
everything had remained a communist, as a man who is already too 
old to reconsider his early decisions remains blindly faithful to his 
old ideals. Like that story-book hero who was granted eternal 
youth, he was doomed to become a heap of loathsome corruption 
if he once broke his enchanted vows. "If I ceased to believe in 
that," he would often say, "I would have nothing left to live for." 
"That" meant in practice a deep attachment to the tradition of the 
"old guard", chiefly Lenin and Dierzhynski, and a gleam of hatred 
in his eyes whenever the name of Stalin was mentioned. He told me 
that Lenin, before his death, had often warned his old comrades 
against Stalin "That cunning Georgian, who likes his lamb 
shashlyk over-peppered and over-salted, will over-pepper and over- 
salt the Revolution."* From his meagre hints about his own life I 
knew only that he had a grown-up son in Vladivostok, of whom he 

* Isaac Deutscher also quotes this saying, very popular in Ri 
the older generation of communists, from Trotsky's Mein Leben. 

Russia among 


had heard nothing since the moment of his own arrest in 1937; 
when asked about his wife, his face twitched painfully and his eyes 
closed. I suppose that before his arrest he did indeed hold a high 
position in the Party hierarchy, for he once told me of the faked 
official statistics which had wiped out of existence several national 
minorities in Russia, including the Polish. Once he explained to me 
with excitement how, at the time of an academic breathing-space, 
when Soviet historians were exhausted by their eternal race to keep 
up with succeeding changes in official historical orientation, he 
spent a whole night discussing with "Emelian" the probable trends 
of Soviet historical thought. When I asked him who Emelian was, 
he replied simply and with slight astonishment that it was 
Yaroslavski the chief of the powerful Anti-Religious League of the 
Soviet Union. Sadovski was completely in the power of the 
demon of logical reasoning all that could be logically proved 
became automatically just and true for him. Sometimes, in a kind 
of somnambulistic trance, his own reasoning would lead him to the 
conclusion that the Great Purges, of which he himself was a 
victim, were the logical outcome of certain unquestionable dialectic 
premises of the October Revolution. Suddenly faced with that 
aspect of the question which concerned him personally, he would 
start like a sleep-walker waking on the edge of a precipice, and shrug 
his shoulders with a gentle smile. Doubtless this is how Hegel must 
have looked, when he replied to remonstrances that his theories did 
not fit the facts with the words "so much the worse for the facts". 
But Sadovski could always fall back on his favourite "Japanese 
anecdote". This related that the Mikado decree ordering the Japanese 
to take off their hats before officials was substituted first by one 
forbidding hats and replacing them with caps, then one "forbidding 
all head-covering" ; finally came an order to "cut off the heads of all 
non-officials so that they shall have nothing on which to wear hats 
or caps". In a similar way Roman Catholics talk of the doctrine of 
papal infallibility in spiritual matters, and explain all the human 
weaknesses of the Church's stumbling servants in secular matters. 
One has only to see old communists in Soviet prisons to become 
convinced that communism is a religion. 

After the haymaking was over, the 57th brigade was assigned to 
the timber depot, where until midday we sawed wood into blocks 
for the saw-mill, and spent the rest of the day loading fir trees, to be 
made into masts, on to open railway trucks. Then began one of the 


most difficult periods of my life. My organism, toughened by the 
dose of vitamins which it had received during the haymaking, 
instead of strengthening me for further exertions, reacted with a 
strong attack of scurvy. All my teeth were loose in my gums as if 
set in soft plasticine, and my legs and ankles became covered with 
painful festering boils which suppurated so much that my trousers 
stuck to my legs and I stopped taking them off at night, sleeping 
with a rolled-up jacket under my feet. I suffered from night-blind- 
ness, and in the evenings Iganov had to lead me back to the camp 
zone. The work at the timber depot seemed to me to be beyond 
human endurance, even though, after my stakhanovite efforts at the 
food supply centre, I ought to have regarded it as a rest in its own 
way. I shivered in the rain and frost, my loose teeth chattered in 
my mouth, and every few moments I had to stop sawing to clutch 
at my heart which seemed to be bursting through my ribs. Fre- 
quently now I would fall down under the burden of the fir masts, to 
the quiet and patient despair of Sadovski, who was in front of me. 
Sadovski did not last long either, though he reacted to his new 
sufferings not with scurvy, but with hunger dementia. It was at this 
time that he snatched a tinful of soup from my hands outside the 
kitchen. I could swear that he did not recognise me then, even 
though he looked straight at me with distended, matter-encrusted 
eyes. I forgave him then, and I forgive him now -him, or his 
mortal remains. He found himself beyond the protection of the 
magic formula of his youthful faith; in a situation where the logical 
brain of man can no longer control the animal reflexes of his body. 
But all this was as nothing compared to my greatest suffering: 
the amnesty passed me by as if with some inexplicable obstinacy. 
Every evening I would stumble through the zone to the transit 
barrack, where parties of Poles, leaving other camp sections for 
freedom, would spend the night before their final release. In the 
daytime I left my work whenever a junior officer of the N.K.V.D. 
Second Section with a piece of paper in his hand appeared at the 
depot, and I would try to catch his eye; but I was evidently for- 
gotten, perhaps even by mistake crossed off the list of the living. If 
it had not been for Makhapetian, I would have broken down 
completely during those days of torturing uncertainty. Only he 
never tired of comforting me, he brought me my soup from the 
kitchen in the evenings, dried my leg-wrappings, listened with 
unwavering interest to my explanations of the political and military 


theories which Sadovski had passed on to me, asked for my views 
on the course of the war, praised the objectiveness with which I 
summed up Russia's potential military and industrial strength, 
stroked my shaved head with kindness when I was near despair, or 
took me over to the technical barrack for a game of chess. Makha- 
petian was indeed like a brother to me and even more, a brother 
and a friend in one person. But even I had to listen to his perpetual 
stories of the "good old days", when, as the Deputy Commissar for 
the Aircraft Industry of the Armenian Republic, he had been a 
friend of "Ivfikoyan himself". 

The autumn evenings are not so dark as those of the winter, so 
that night-blindness consists of an uncertain stumbling rather than a 
helpless struggle in the invisible bonds of the night. One November 
evening I was carefully making my way along the slippery planks of 
the path to the barrack, when I was stopped in front of the camp 
craftsmen's shed by a short stocky prisoner. I recognised him even 
before he led me into his workshop it was an old Armenian 
cobbler whom I had seen before with Makhapetian, when, on free 
days, they whispered quietly together in a foreign language. He was 
known in the camp as an extremely honest and helpful man, and it 
was even said that he refused the customary bribes of extra bread 
for mending the boots of camp chiefs. Having seated me on a low 
stool, he first looked behind a partition to make sure that there was 
no one still at work in the tailors' section of the hut, and then 
considered me in silence for a long time. 

"Listen," he finally said, "is it true that you talk in the camp 
about a Russian victory over the Germans?" 

"Yes, why?" 

"Well, it's like this," he sat down next to me, "you know that 
Lieutenant Strumina's office is next to the corner of the barrack 
where the tailors sit?" 

"Yes, I know," I said, and a feeling of foreboding passed over 

"Well then," the cobbler went on, "a tailor I know has pierced a 
small hole between the planks in the wall. In the daytime he covers 
it with a layer of plaster, and on Wednesday evenings he listens to 
what the informers have to say to Strumina. Yesterday he called me 
to the hole, but not only because they were talking about you . . ." 

"About me?" 

"Yes. Strumina first asked the informer what sort of morale 


there was in the camp. He answered that, apart from a handful of 
good citizens of the Soviet Union, who only in the camp came to 
realise the error of their ways, all prisoners long for a German 
victory. 'That's understandable,' says Strumina, 'and what about 
the little Pole?' The man said that he had come specially to tell her 
that 'the little Pole Gerling' is of a completely different opinion. 'No 
wonder' says Strumina Ve have signed a pact with the Polish 
Government and declared an amnesty for them.' But the informer 
would not give up there. 'All Poles,' he said, 'even though they are 
going back to freedom, talk in the transit barrack in whispers of 
the defeat of Russia and desire it just as eagerly as those who 
remain in the camp.' 'Well, so what?' asks Strumina. 'Well, so this 
Gerling is certainly not the simple student that he makes himself out 
to be, but probably a Trotskyist, or else someone very important, 
one of Colonel Beck's collaborators. For, O comrade Strumina, 
you don't know how well he can discuss politics.' 'There is the 
Sikorski pact,' Strumina hesitated. 'Yes, surely, but in every pact 
there are reservations and special clauses. Just let him, get out, and 
you will see what happens if they send him to America. Wouldn't it 
be better to take him in a transport to a special tribunal of the 
N.K.V.D. in Moscow and unmask him as a spy?' 'We'll see,' says 
Strumina and that was all." 

"Listen," I asked him breathlessly, "couldn't you see who it was 
through the hole?" 

"I didn't need to. I recognised his voice." 

"Who was it?" I asked, gripping his arm. 

"I wasn't sure if I should tell you . . ." 

"Tell me," I shouted furiously, "for Christ's sake tell me!" 

And quietly, not looking me in the eyes, he said : "Makhapetian." 


TOWARDS the end of November 1941, four months after the general 
amnesty for Polish prisoners in Russian camps had been an- 
nounced, when I knew that I should not survive until spring and 
when I had given up all hope of being released, I decided to go on a 
hunger-strike in protest. 

Only six Poles remained in Yercevo of the two hundred who had 
been there. Every day dozens of them passed through our 
peresylny on their way out from all the main sections of the 
Kargopol camp: Mostovitza, Ostrovnoye, Krouglitza, Nyandoma 
and the two Alexeyevkas. Yercevo seemed suddenly to have 
become empty for us, and it looked as if unless we died soon, we 
would share the fate of the u old Poles" from the Ukraine, who had 
been cut off from Poland by the outbreak of the 1917 Revolution, 
and who, until the announcement of the amnesty, had considered 
themselves to be Russians. We now understood their bitterness 
when they learnt that the Polish-Russian pact also considered them 
to be Russians. 

My hunger-strike was not so much an act of courage as a 
desperate step which had every appearance of common sense. I was 
in the final stages of scurvy, physically exhausted, and according to 
experienced prisoners I had only six months to live. A hunger- 
strike was something almost completely unknown in Soviet prison 
camps, and even in peace-time it was treated as industrial sabotage, 
punished with a heavy additional sentence or even with death; 
what is more, I could hardly expect my physical condition to be 
improved by a period of several days without any food or drink. I 
recognised all the arguments as well as did the friends who advised 
me against the step. But what finally decided me was the thought 
that when I came to die in a few months' time, it would be with the 
bitter knowledge that I had given in without a struggle. As long as 
parties of Poles still went out into liberty through Yercevo there 
was always a slight chance that I would remind the authorities of 
my existence by a gesture of self-destruction. I risked cutting my life 
short by a few months, but although even that decision demands a 



great deal of determination, yet the stake was too high for me to 
hesitate. A man who is buried alive and suddenly wakes in dark- 
ness does not think reasonably, but jerks his body and beats with 
bleeding fingers on the lid of the coffin with all the strength of his 

But it was not so easy to convince the other Poles of the necessity 
for action, and yet without their participation the hunger-strike 
would lose the moral force of a solid common effort. During 
several evenings in succession we met together in the corner of one 
of the barracks: M., an engineer; B., a teacher from Stanislavov; 
T., a policeman from Silesia; Miss Z., a bank clerk from Lvov; L., 
the owner of a saw-mill near Vilna, and myself. Their objections to 
my proposal wavered between exaggerated fear and undue hope. 
"Not everything is lost yet, and a hunger-strike, as an offence 
committed after the announcement of the amnesty, will only serve 
to make our situation worse, and perhaps exclude us from the 
amnesty altogether. Besides, for all we know, they may still treat us 
as Soviet citizens despite the signing of the agreement in London, 
and you know that hunger-strikes and refusal to work are punished 
by death. . . . But everything isn't lost yet, our lives are in God's 
hands. . . . They surely can't keep genuine Poles like ourselves in 
the camp, and release people who until recently were denying their 
Polish nationality. . . ." 

But they could, however, only too easily. The difficulty of our 
dispute lay in the fact that both sides had, of necessity, to use 
entirely irrational arguments. My friends believed in the justice of 
Divine decrees and in the force of international obligations; I 
believed in the possibility of escaping our fate by deliberately 
provoking it. On the evening of November 30th, when I had 
almost made up my mind to strike by myself if they would not, I 
went for the last time to our corner of B.'s barrack. The engineer 
M. sat, as usual, in the darkest corner of the lower bunk, resting his 
thin, ascetic face on his hands, and looking at me with tentative 
friendliness. The teacher B., formerly an officer of the reserve, who 
after the outbreak of the Russo-German war had been locked up in 
the camp prison and had only recently returned to Yercevo from 
the Second Alexeyevka, seemed to be looking for a way out of the 
situation in which he was placed, and was obviously avoiding my 
eyes. T. and L. played draughts with assumed indifference, and 
Miss Z., her hands folded across her stomach, was whispering a 


prayer. In the murky light of the barrack they looked like a group 
of tourists lost in some rocky mountain cleft while darkness falls, 
who are ready to risk a dangerous attempt to escape if only their 
guide will take upon himself all responsibility for its success or 
failure. I stood before them, seized also with a sudden fear, not 
knowing what I should do. 

"You must remember how I was denounced by Makhapetian," I 
said at last. "Which of you can be certain that he doesn't owe his 
prolonged imprisonment to equally absurd accusations which have 
been made against him by an informer? After the Ribbentrop- 
Molotov pact of 1939, German communists went on hunger-strike 
in a Moscow prison. And what happened ? Of the six hundred who 
participated five hundred-odd were released and repatriated, and 
the fact that I myself, towards the end of January, saw three of those 
who had been detained in Russia, in our own peresylny, surely 
proves that not one was taken before a firing-squad. . . ." 

These two arguments made an unexpected impression, and for a 
moment I was almost sorry that they had agreed so easily and so 
readily. But it was now too late to draw back, and we decided that 
M. should not strike with us as he had a serious heart disease, and 
he was also the only Pole in the camp besides us, the only man who 
could hope to be released and whom we could trust to take news of 
us out to liberty, in case our mutiny should end before an emergency 
war tribunal. The very same evening we handed in our bread 
ration and soup tickets at Samsonov's office, though we took the 
precaution of going there separately, at half-hourly intervals, and 
afterwards we were careful not to meet or talk in the zone. From 
the stories of Russian prisoners we had learnt enough about the 
Soviet penal code to know that the slightest infringement of re- 
gulations is treated as the most serious offence if it has any appear- 
ance of an organised conspiracy. We had committed ourselves. 

The days immediately preceding my decision to strike had taught 
me some curious things about myself. After the amnesty, when my 
release seemed to be only a matter of time, I had felt guilty and 
ashamed before my Russian fellow-prisoners because I was leaving 
the camp by the simple accident of being a Pole, and not as an 
ordinary prisoner, leaving it, too, to defend the regime which was 
responsible for their imprisonment and their suffering. But as the 
weeks passed without release, and the gates of the camp still barred 
my way out to freedom, I lost all my generosity and humanity. 


Gradually, without admitting it even to myself, I began to hate the 
Russian prisoners with all my heart, from the very depths of my 
hopelessness, as if with invisible hands they were holding me back 
by my ragged jerkin, pulling me down into the quicksand of their 
own despair, to shut me out for ever from the light of day because 
their own eyes had for years vainly tried to pierce the obscure night 
of their existence. I became suspicious, peevish and boorish, 
avoided even my best friends, and received the expressions of their 
sympathy with unhealthy mistrust. This psychological condition 
drove me to my decision as much as any reasoning or sheer despair. 
I wanted to assert, with my own life if necessary, the existence of the 
right to an ultimate free choice, a right which they, the eternal 
slaves, would never have dared to claim for themselves. My 
behaviour was repulsive and humiliating to me, but I could not 
defend myself against it as a man cannot defend himself against his 
own nature. It was the greatest self-degradation of my life, this 
longing to be revenged on the other prisoners only because I was 
threatened with having to share for ever their accursed fate. 

Among the six Poles who had joined together in a hunger-strike 
relations were developing badly. Despite the appearance of 
friendship and solidarity which a common struggle had created, we 
did not trust each other, and waited only to see which of us would 
be the first to break down or betray the rest. In our fear of the trial 
before us, we suspected above all that the hunger-strike might for 
every one of us become the opportunity to gain freedom at the 
price of the others' lives. We were like a shipwrecked company, 
drifting in one lifeboat to some unknown destination; they are 
necessary to each other, for every pair of hands mans an oar, but 
not one of them can for a moment forget that every man in the boat 
must eat until the meagre food supply is exhausted. Although if I 
had struck alone I would have forcibly isolated myself from the rest 
of the Poles in the camp, yet to strike together was to assume the 
dangerous character of an organised action. And, we wondered, 
what if. one of us should break down? Would he save himself by 
incriminating the others, or would his failure help them to a quicker 
triumph? We were bound together as human destinies are on 
earth every move in the direction of freedom involved someone 
else's suffering. We saw so clearly what lies hidden in a human 
heart: the rare gift of nobility in moments of comparative safety, 
and the seed of failure to live up to it in the face of death. It was our 


pettiness and our cowardice, not our courage, that held us together. 
We decided on common action only when that silent distrust could 
separate us irrevocably or weld us together. And in that atmosphere 
of tension it was no accident that, when we shook hands in agree- 
ment on that gloomy November evening, we decided to exclude M. 
from the hunger-strike as a pledge of our honesty and good faith in 
this final test. A snowstorm was raging outside, and on the table 
by B.'s bunk the yellow flame of a candle-stump wavered un- 
certainly. M. accepted with a nod of the head, though a bitter little 
smile passed over his pale face. 

When I returned from Samsonov's office to my barrack, I was 
greeted by silence. All the conversations round the table broke off 
suddenly, my nearest neighbours on the bunk edged away as if I 
were contagious, my friends avoided my eyes and answered my 
questions unwillingly The news of our hunger-strike had already 
spread throughout the camp, arousing excitement and fear every- 
where. The feelings of my Russian friends towards me must have 
been as embarrassing as mine were towards them. When the 
amnesty was first announced, they had treated me with reserve, 
almost with dislike, for the prospect of my miraculous release was 
for them a break of prison solidarity. But the long months of 
waiting which followed, while I gradually lost all hope of freedom, 
had again brought them closer to me, though for the same reason 1 
still kept myself apart from them. I suspected that their sympathy 
for me was really the comfort which condemned men draw from the 
despair of others. Their reactions to the news of the hunger-strike 
were equally complex. They were excited and fascinated by the 
very fact that we had dared to lift a hand against the unalterable 
laws of slavery, which had never before been disturbed by one 
gesture of rebellion. On the other hand, there was the instinctive 
fear, which they had retained from their former lives, that they might 
be involved in something dangerous, perhaps a case threatened with 
a war tribunal. Who was to know whether the hearings would not 
reveal the "rebel's" conversations in the barrack immediately after 
committing the offence? Better keep away from him, at least until 
the Third Section takes up some definite attitude towards his un- 
precedented case. There were also other, more hidden, reasons for 
their attitude. Our hunger-strike was a revolt of foreigners. Its 
failure would prove once and for all that even the people "from over 
there" cannot force a hole in the prison wall which separates all 


Russia from the rest of the world. But if the rebellion were success- 
ful, it would show only too clearly that even behind the barbed wire 
of the camps different laws exist for foreigners and for Russians. 
Our success would increase their despair, for in a situation without 
any solution it is better to be certain that there are no exceptions to 
the common fate. Nothing comforts a suffering heart so much 
as the sight of another's suffering; and nothing deprives one of 
hope so much as the thought that only a chosen few have a right to 

I was alone, then. Lying on my bunk, I looked round the barrack 
with a feeling of loneliness and fear. The prisoners were preparing 
for the night, whispering quietly among themselves and drying their 
foot-rags over the fire. Several were boiling, in small tin cans, 
potato peelings and rotten parsnips which they had collected from 
the rubbish-heap by the kitchen. The period of acute hunger and 
food shortage in the camp seemed to be never-ending, but it had 
reached the phase when we were almost indifferent to it. There 
comes a moment when the hungry man begins to suffer from the 
hunger of the imagination far more than from pangs in the stomach. 
His thoughts become filled with feverish visions of food, and his 
dominant feeling is panic, fear that his body will slowly wither away. 
Then the possibility of cheating hunger is more important than a 
full stomach. Even snow seems to take on a solid consistency- it is 
eaten like porridge. Thus, though the most starving prisoners 
detested the actual taste of rotten vegetables boiled into a fluid mess, 
they looked upon the acquisition and eating of these scraps as 
exceptional luck, for in itself it gave them the confidence that they 
were warding off, even momentarily, the inevitable end. Those 
evening meals were celebrated with quiet solemnity, and prisoners 
invited to share the contents of someone's bowl were honoured 
guests partaking of a magnificent feast. 

In the sphere of human emotions there exists a strange pheno- 
menon which is something more than mere habit, the almost 
suicidal condition of psychological indolence. I mean by this that 
at the very depth of human degradation there occur moments when 
every possibility of change, even change for the better, appears risky 
and dangerous. I have heard of beggars who look upon their 
benefactors with increasing suspicion if they receive more from 
them than the usual alms, a roof over their heads or work instead of 
a few pennies. Below a certain standard of life man develops a 


fatalistic attachment to his misery and treats with distrust any 
prospect of improvement; bitter experience has taught him that 
change can only be for the worse. "Leave me alone," he seems to 
say. "All I want is just enough to live on." It is possible to draw 
from this the conservative conclusion that no one should be made 
happy against his own will, and this is accurate in one respect: 
happiness is never the same to him who receives it and to him who 
gives it. In the camp I almost believed that a man condemned to a 
certain fate should not rebel against it. I was astonished that night, 
as I lay on my bunk and looked at my fellow-prisoners with hatred, 
to find myself suddenly regretting my attempt to escape their life. 
It was easy to tell from their faces that few of them would live longer 
than a year, and yet I felt so much safer and less lonely as one of 
them, even in the face of death, than without them in this last 
struggle for life. There was some unperturbed resignation about 
these barefooted men with bristly faces flushed from the warmth of 
the flames, who sat over their pots, aimlessly poking the fire with 
pieces of wood, or else lay down on their bunks to wait for sleep, 
staring with exhausted eyes at the dim light of the bulbs. It was 
already quiet in the barrack; occasionally a prisoner crawled with 
diflBculty from his sleeping place and, stumbling as if drunk, 
knocking aside the bare legs which protruded into the passage 
from all sides, walked over to the bucket of hvoya for a drink. The 
corner bunk where Dimka used to sit in silence was now empty 
our orderly had been sent to the mortuary. The night was approach- 
ing, I felt alone, dreadfully alone. 

That night I did not close my eyes. I lay on my back on the hard 
bunk, with my hands folded under my head, and once more 
attempted to settle in my mind all that had happened. After 
midnight the whole barrack was asleep, the bulbs became dimmer, 
and from all sides came the first nocturnal shrieks, babblings and 
sobbings. It was stifling, and like my neighbours I threw aside my 
jerkin and greedily inhaled the heated air. Closing my eyes, my 
imagination brought up the sound of carp plashing in the reeds of 
an abandoned pond; when I looked round I could see half-open 
mouths and rotting teeth, which gave out the sweetish odour of 
decay, discernible even at that distance, and the whites of eyes 
gleaming in dark sockets. Beyond the windows spread the white 
night, leaving the frosty imprint of leaves and ferns on the glass. 
The beams of light from the four corner searchlights, patrolling the 


night as usual, pierced the barrack at regular intervals, picking out 
sleeping faces from the half-darkness of lower bunks, and dis- 
appeared rapidly like swords cutting the soft curtain of the night. 

Far more audacious than the hunger-strike, and far more 
dangerous, was our refusal to work. In Soviet camps it is known as 
"otkaz", and is one of the most serious offences against internal 
camp discipline. For example, the Kolyma camp, which is cut off 
from the rest of the world by ice and snow during most of the year, 
is ruled by a cruel regime of internal regulations which are not 
subject to central control, and there refusal to work is punished by 
immediate shooting; in other camps the offender is stripped naked 
and left standing in the snow and frost until he either submits or 
dies; in others yet, the first punishment is solitary confinement on 
water and two hundred grammes of bread a day, and if the offence 
is repeated, the prisoner goes through a second trial and is given a 
second sentence five years for criminal prisoners, ten years or 
death for politicals. In Yercevo "otkazchyks" with a second 
sentence were after a few months taken away to the central prison 
beyond the zone, and we never knew what became of them. But 
from time to time we heard the echoes of machine-gun and rifle 
fire from beyond the zone, and we had good reason to believe that 
they came not, as we were told, from the camp garrison's shooting 
range, but from the walled-in courtyard of the central prison. After 
the outbreak of the Russo-German war the camp authorities did 
not attempt to conceal from us the fact that new regulations had 
come into existence which gave the extraordinary powers of war 
tribunals in practice power of life and death over the prisoners 
to the "people's courts" in villages near labour camps. The example 
of the drunken sceptic in the technical barrack proved this 
sufficiently. Among the gravest offences which could be com- 
mitted in the camp after June 22nd, 1941, were the spreading of 
defeatism and refusal to work, which, under the new defence 
regulations, was included in the category of "sabotage of the war 
effort". There remained only the vital question of how far the 
Sikorski-Maiski pact exempted the Poles from the mechanism of 
Soviet martial law. On this thin thread hung the whole success or 
failure of our hunger-strike, and I knew that the first hours of the 
day which was dawning beyond the opaque glass of the windows 
would give us the full answer to the question. In the pros and cons 
of our enterprise it was the only unknown quantity, and it would 


decide whether the sign of equation would point toward us like 
rifles aimed at our hearts, or stand like the open double gates of the 

Towards morning I fell asleep so heavily that I slept right through 
reveille and was only woken by a sharp tug at my ankle. Zyskind 
was standing by my bunk and with a gesture of the head ordered 
me to come with him. I climbed down from the bunk, put my cap 
on, tied my jerkin into a bundle with a piece of string, and followed 
him out of the deserted barrack into the zone. Outside, orderlies 
were shovelling the snow away from barrack doors, broad sweeps of 
smoke issued from the kitchen chimneys and the bath-house and, 
spreading over the roofs, bounced off the eaves like rolled-up pieces 
of paper tossed into the air. The water-sledge rode slowly from the 
kitchen towards the gates, carrying an empty barrel with Kola, the 
water-carrier, sitting astride it and prodding his frost-rimed bay 
with a juniper twig. When he saw me walking with Zyskind he 
turned round as if to shout something, but after a moment bent 
over the reins again, tugged them towards him, and hit the horse 
with the twig. Several sick prisoners were already waiting by the 
dispensary. The morning was frosty, dry, and sharp. It was the first 
of December. 

Instead of going directly to the internal camp prison, I had to 
accompany Zyskind while he went round the barracks where the 
other hunger-strikers lived, and then the six of us walked together 
to Samsonov's office. He saw us individually, but the interviews 
were identical. He sat at his desk, behind him on the wall a large 
map of the Soviet Union, large portraits of Stalin and much smaller 
ones of Beria, graphs of .the production scheme and a plan of the 
camp; he looked at me calmly from under his fur cap, his re- 
proachful, almost fatherly expression betrayed by occasional 
flashes of hatred. 

"Who told you to strike?" 

"No one. It was my own decision." 

"Why are you striking?" 

"I ask to be released from the camp in accordance with the 
terms of the general amnesty for Polish citizens imprisoned in 
Russia, or else to be allowed to communicate with the Polish 
plenipotentiary to the Soviet Government." 

"Have you heard of the special tribunals which in wartime can 
shoot prisoners for refusing to work? Do you know that a hunger- 


strike is rebellion against Soviet authority and Soviet law?" 
"Yes, I know." 

"Sign this declaration to say that you do know." 
"I won't sign anything. From the moment that the Soviet-Polish 
agreement was signed in London, I have been the citizen of an 
allied country, and I owe no allegiance to Soviet law." 
"Silence! Zyskind, lock this Polish bastard up!" 
Zyskind ran energetically into the room, crying "Yes, Citizen 
Chief," and led us outside in front of the barrack. The first hearing 
was over. We looked at each other in silence, but with relief on our 
faces, and only Miss Z. went pale, her teeth chattering, while B. 
wiped the sweat from his forehead with his sleeve. 

By nine o'clock we were all in the camp prison, each in a separate 
cell. The internal prison of Yercevo squatted like a hen-roost by 
the observation-post in the corner of the zone. It was a small house, 
with barred windows the size of a human head, and surrounded by a 
barbed-wire fence so that no doubt might exist that this was the 
prison within a prison. Prisoners usually avoided it, walking 
round it at a distance, not even looking in the direction of those grey 
stone walls, pierced by openings which seemed to breathe out a cold 
dark emptiness. But sometimes shouting and singing could be 
heard from the prison, and then prisoners would step on the path, 
with their backs to its walls and facing the barracks so as not to 
awaken suspicion, and listen in case those inside were asking for 
something. The internal prison housed those punished for minor 
offences committed in the zone, and those who were to be trans- 
ferred, with a heavier sentence, to the central prison beyond the 
zone, which was also used for the free citizens of Yercevo. One of 
every prisoner's most cherished dreams was of escape from the 
torture of daily work in a labour camp to the blessed idleness of a 
normal prison, but conditions in the two Yercevo prisons were such 
that it was indeed a heavy punishment. A prisoner in one of them 
received only water and 200 grammes of bread a day; the windows 
in the small cells had neither glass nor even a board over them, so 
that the temperature was never higher than outside; finally, the 
prisoner could take with him into the prison only the things in 
which he went out to work if he was fortunate enough to possess a 
palliasse or a few horse-blankets, he had to leave them in the 
barrack. In some cases, too, the punishment of solitary confine- 
ment was limited only to the nights the prisoner went to work in 


the daytime as usual, but in the evening he came from the guard- 
house straight to the prison, and received for this only the "penal" 
cauldron, 300 grammes of bread and two platefuls of the thinnest 
soup. The prison therefore was a dreaded punishment, and 
sometimes prisoners there wept like children, promising good 
behaviour only to get out. 

The window of my cell looked out on the zone, and pressing my 
face to the cold bars I could see some of the barracks, the kitchen 
and the bath-house. In the neighbouring cell, on my right as I faced 
the window, was the Silesian policeman T., a simple and honest 
man who for reasons unknown to us concealed his real name and 
profession in the camp, where he passed for a miner, and who was 
one of the best foresters in the whole of Yercevo. T.'s cell adjoined 
that of Miss Z., and the other two hunger-strikers were beyond her. 
On my left was Gorbatov, an electro-technician from Rostov, 
who was in solitary confinement for insulting a free official in 
the Yercevo electricity plant. T.'s window, beyond the corner of the 
prison building, commanded a view of the road leading from the 
camp to the town, and he could see a few of the houses in Yercevo 
and the fork of the road which led to the central prison. 

My cell was so low that I could touch the ceiling with my hand, 
and so narrow that with one step I could walk from the wall of T.'s 
cell to that of Gorbatov's. Half the space was taken up by a two- 
tiered bunk, made of rough, unplaned wood nailed together, and 
turned with the head towards the window. It was impossible to sit on 
the upper bunk without bending one's back against the ceiling, and 
the lower one could only be entered with the movement of a diver, 
head first, and left by pushing one's body away from the wood, like 
a swimmer in a sandbank. The distance between the edge of the 
bunk and the bucket by the door was less than half a normal step. 
After some deliberation, I chose the upper bunk, even though a 
bitter wind blew in continually through the open window, piling 
up a thin layer of snow on the ledge. I thought that if I walked 
backwards and forwards, as one does in a prison cell, on a scrap of 
bare earth measuring a step by half a step, I should soon go mad. 
I could communicate with both my neighbours through the red- 
brick walls, and not only by the usual prison method of a knocking 
alphabet, but even in a loud whisper through chinks in the wall 
where fragments of dried cement had fallen out. Before going off to 
lunch, Zyskind once more tested the lock on the door. The key 


turned in the lock, the judas was raised for a brief moment, and 
then the quiet tread of felt boots receded, leaving us in dead silence. 

The first day I spent looking round my cell and out at the zone 
through the tiny window above the bunk. It was strange to look at 
those other prisoners, hurrying to their barracks, stopping on the 
paths, greeting each other from a distance: I could almost believe 
that they were free men. But I did not envy them. After so many 
months of life in a large herd, solitude was again, as before in the 
hospital, a fresh and reviving feeling. I was terribly cold, but I did 
not feel any hunger. Somewhere at the bottom of my conscious- 
ness was a small spark of pride, as if I had already gained my 
freedom with difficulty. Thousands of men all over the world fight 
for various causes, without knowing that even the possibility of 
defeat, if it can only assume the character of martyrdom, becomes 
conquest and glory. Men defeated in a lonely struggle for some- 
thing in which they believe, willingly take upon themselves the 
burden of martyrdom as the bitter reward of their solitude. But 
unfortunately there are very few whose physical endurance can live 
up to the strength of their determination. On the very first evening 
of my imprisonment, when the bulb was lit in my cell and I heard 
the usual sounds of mess-cans and pots tinkling in the zone, I was 
suddenly seized by hunger and fear, and from that moment, even 
though I refused all drink, I passed water several times every day 
and night until the end of my hunger-strike. 

That night I slept badly, waking frequently, and my dreams were 
so puzzling, disconnected and intangible that with the greatest effort 
I could not recall them even a moment after waking. Shivering 
with cold, I squeezed myself into a corner of the bunk, as far as 
possible from the window, with my legs drawn up to my stomach, 
my head almost entirely covered by my jerkin, and my hands in its 
sleeves. In this position I could lie on one side only for an hour at a 
time, but because it seemed the most sensible, and because it pro- 
tected me best from the wind, I did not change it during the whole 
time that I stayed in the prison. The next morning the hunger had 
receded, but the feeling of loneliness grew. I climbed down from 
the bunk and for a few minutes walked about on the small space of 
floor to warm myself, beating my hands against my sides. When at 
last I felt my blood running faster through my numbed limbs, I 
knocked on the wall of T.'s cell. 

"How do you feel?" I asked. 


Behind the wall I heard a loud noise like the falling of a body, 
then a gentle scratching at the cement, and finally TVs calm voice : 

"Bloody cold, but I'm managing. And you?" 

"I'm all right. What about the others ?" 

"They don't answer." 

I stepped across to the other wall and knocked. 

"How long have you been here, Gorbatov?" 

"Five days. And as many more to come." 

"How is it going?" 

"I'm starving. The scrap of bread they give you here . . 
You're mad to try this hunger-strike, you won't last out. . . ." 

"That's none of your business, Gorbatov. . . ." 

I sat down again on the edge of the lower bunk, looking aimlessly 
at the bucket. Gorbatov turned out to be more sociable than T. 
He knocked on the wall: 

"Do you know who I've got next to me?" he asked. 


"Three nuns, being punished for their faith." 


"It's true, I can hear them singing and praying. I tried to talk to 
them, but they won't answer. Virgins, you see." He laughed, and 
at once choked with a fit of coughing. 

Vaguely, as through a mist, I remembered the story of the three 
nuns of Hungarian origin, which had been whispered about in the 
camp though none of us had ever seen them. It was said that they 
had been sent to Yercevo prison with a transport from Nyandoma, 
where they had been imprisoned since 1938. They had worked well 
until the autumn of 1941, when one day they suddenly refused to 
leave the zone in the morning, saying that they would not "work 
for Satan". The prisoners in Yercevo discussed their case fre- 
quently, but in October the whole affair seemed to die down, and I 
was certain that the three nuns had either been dead for a long time, 
or else were in the central prison. The severity of martial law gave 
to their mysterious madness the character of certain suicide. 
T. knocked again. 

"What's that dripping in your cell? Roof leaking?" he asked. 
"No, I was making water." 
"Why, are you drinking?" 
"Well, then, what's the matter? Frightened already?" 


"No, I must have a sick bladder." 

T. laughed and said something else, but I had taken my ear away 
from the crack. For a long hour I stood in silence leaning against 
the bunk, feeling my former assurance vanishing and giving place to 
anxiety, and seeking escape in the contemplation of my daring and 
ambition. There are moments in the life of every man, particularly 
after periods when his self-confidence has been inflated by the 
audacity of his plans and actions, when his legs seem to melt under 
him and his only desire is to escape, to fly without looking back. 

"Do you know who's in here with us?" I asked T. 


"Those three nuns who won't work for Satan." 

"Still here? What do they want?" 

"It's their martyrdom for the faith," I replied without thinking, 
not even realising then that I had borrowed the phrase from 

"Just like ours," he answered calmly. 

"You're exaggerating, we only want our freedom," I retorted, 
and immediately knocked on the other wall again. 

"Hey, Gorbatov, give our love to the three little nuns from the 
starving Poles." 

"Have you gone mad? I want to get out of here some time! 
Quiet, it's Zyskind." 

I heard steps on the path in front of the prison and the opening of 
the main door. Zyskind walked along the corridor for a while; 
finally the key turned in the lock of my door. He came inside, and 
without a word placed a whole ration of bread on the upper bunk. 
He must have done the same thing in the other cells, for I heard the 
turning of the key and the regular slamming of doors receding down 
the corridor. I looked at the fresh bread for a long time, but I felt 
no hunger; and although Zyskind brought me a fresh ration every 
day at the same time, I greeted his visits with increasing apathy, and 
the pile of bread grew on the bunk, untouched. 

In the evening the door of my cell was again opened. Someone 
was kicked inside through the door, rolled across the floor like an 
enormous rag ball, and disappeared in the lower bunk. After about 
a quarter of an hour the door opened slightly, and Zyskind pushed 
through first a plateful of steaming soup, then a slice of bread, on 
the floor. The unknown prisoner jumped up, hit his head on the 
bottom of the upper bunk, swore, and threw himself on the floor. 


He ate loudly and greedily smacking his lips, gulping down the 
hot fluid, and rapidly crushing the bread in his jaws. This went on 
for more than a minute, and then I heard the familiar sound of a 
tongue licking round the plate, the clang of the empty tin dish 
thrown on the floor, and an animal grunt of satisfaction. 

I suddenly felt the sickly taste of a lump of phlegm in my throat, 
beads of sweat on my forehead, and a weakness in my whole body 
like a total loss of consciousness. When I came to, the other was 
already asleep, snoring and breathing out with a penetrating whistle, 
and muttering in his sleep. In the morning he was taken away to 
work, and in the evening brought back again to my cell. And 
though we spent five nights together we never exchanged a word, 
and I did not even once see his face. When he ate, I lay on my bunk, 
seeing only a foot of earth by the door and the bucket, and when he 
went out in the morning I was either asleep or pretending to be. In 
the dark light of the evening I saw only for a fraction of a second the 
cowering crumpled shape of his body, pushed inside with a violent 
blow which sent him sprawling straight into his bunk. I knew that 
his function in my cell was that of a tempter, but I became attached 
to him, for in the stream of time which dragged mercilessly slowly 
he was the only stable point on which I could fix my starved 

On the fourth day of hunger I was so weak that I could only with 
difficulty climb down to use the bucket, and the rest of the day I 
spent without movement on my bunk, dozing restlessly even in the 
daytime. This feverish, broken sleep brought me a certain relief, a 
full taste of my loneliness, but it also put me in a strange state of 
fear and gradually robbed me of all feeling of reality. I was neither 
hungry nor cold, but I would wake up suddenly to find myself 
shouting, not knowing at first where I was and what I was doing 
there. In my rare moments of consciousness I tried in vain to recall 
my life until that moment, perhaps to draw consolation from a last 
glimpse of the face which had once borne my name, the man that I 
had been. I realised vividly as never before the sadness and 
bitterness of dying, and experienced the process of detachment 
from one's own personality which is surely the most terrible aspect 
of death and the one which most disposes to religious conversion. 
What is left to a man if he does not even believe that somewhere, 
when his time on earth is up, will occur the miraculous fusion of a 
body which has been abandoned on the hard planks of suffering 


with the purpose of life which leaves it as the blood flows from the 
veins? At those moments I regretted the fact that the camp had 
hardened me so that I could no longer pray; I was like a barren, 
parched desert rock which will not stream with living water until it 
is touched by a miraculous wand. 

About midday the door opened and a high-ranking officer of the 
N.K.V.D. whom I had not seen before walked in, in a uniform 
crossed by a belt, an unbuttoned leather coat and a red-and-blue cap 
with a gilded Soviet emblem. Samsonov was looking into the cell 
over his shoulder, in a fur cap and with his fur greatcoat buttoned 
up to the neck. 

The unknown officer opened his overcoat and I could see his 
hand resting on his revolver holster. "Name?" he asked sharply. 

With difficulty I raised myself on the bunk and slowly pro- 
nounced my name, but suddenly I imagined that I saw the officer 
unbuttoning the holster and taking the black, gleaming handle of 
his revolver into manicured fingers. My heart beat faster, and all 
my blood seemed to rush into my unbearably overfilled bladder. I 
closed my eyes, and heard the next question like the explosion of a 

"Will you stop this strike?" 

"No," I answered, shouting hastily and desperately, "no, no!" 
and fell back on the bunk, drenched with sweat, while my bladder 
collapsed like a pricked balloon. 

"War tribunal for you!" I heard as if in my sleep. The cell door 
slammed shut again. 

I have no idea how long I slept then but it was already dusk when 
violent knocking on T.'s wall woke me up. 

"Miss Z. fainted," he said quickly, "they've taken her to the 

"And the others?" 

"I don't know. The communication has broken down because 
her cell is empty, but I heard many steps in the corridor. I thought 
that you'd been taken off too, I've been knocking for an hour. Did 
they threaten you?" 


"Are you holding out?" 

I thought for a while and then answered : "Yes." 

Towards evening Zyskind brought me the daily portion of 
bread, and instead of leaving without a word as usual, he pressed a 


scrap of paper into my hands. I crawled over the bunk nearer to the 
bulb to read the message. It was from B.: "We are all three in 
hospital. Stop the strike. It won't get you anywhere." 

I read it out to T., but he only swore when he heard it. With a 
feeling of relief I curled up to sleep again, while the other prisoner 
burst noisily into the cell and greedily threw himself on his soup. 

The next morning I awoke with a strange feeling that I was 
choking. I caught the air into my lungs with difficulty, my hands 
and legs seemed to be bursting out of my clothes and hanging out in 
rolls of flesh, and my whole body felt as if it was firmly tied down to 
the bunk. Without changing my position, I raised one hand before 
my eyes, and found it so swollen that the wrist joint had disappeared 
from sight under a layer of flesh, and two soft, fat cushions had 
formed on either side of the hand. I sat up slowly and looked at my 
feet, which were bursting out of my rubber shoes above the ankle. 
So it was true: one did swell from hunger. I unlaced my shoes, 
freeing my feet from the straps, and with difficulty I began to un- 
pick the seams of my thickly-wadded trousers. Every movement was 
a piercing streak of pain, for I had to tear the cloth away with the 
crust of dried blood and pus, but I did not stop until I saw my two 
legs naked, red blocks covered with open sores from which a 
yellow-pinkish fluid trickled slowly. I felt the legs as if they were not 
mine the finger plunged into the soft dough of flesh, and bounced 
off as from an inflated rubber tyre. But to pull off my jerkin I had 
to get down from the bunk, and when the whole operation was 
accomplished I sat down on the floor exhausted, with my back 
against the wall. Now I could swell freely, I had enough living- 
space. I was not even cold, I felt only sick and giddy. And without 
noticing it I fell asleep with my head on the cushions of my knees, 
soft and wet with blood. 

It cannot have been later than four in the afternoon, for the light 
still streamed in thinly through the window, when I heard not so 
much a knocking, as a violent noise, from Gorbatov's cell. Without 
changing my position I knocked back and listened. 

"They've just taken the nuns away, I'm going out this evening. 
All the best." 

I crawled across the floor to the other wall. 

"Look through your window. They've just taken the nuns." 

"Right," answered T. 'Til knock later and tell you." 

I waited, full of incomprehensible excitement and apprehension. 


My head weighed on me like a ripe pumpkin; the sores on my legs 
had dried while I was asleep, but were itching so mercilessly that I 
began aimlessly to pick at them, playing with the thin scabs. I was 
stifling and I felt my bladder burning again, but I had not the 
strength to get up. I felt a hot wave flowing through my trousers 
and saw a small puddle forming on the floor. 

T. was knocking. "I saw it." 

"Tell me what happened." 

"They took them out beyond the zone, towards the central prison. 
I couldn't see very far, it's dusk already. . . ." 

"What did they look like?" 

"Quite ordinary. Three women with inhumanly tangled hair. 
Still young, I should think." 

"Large escort?" 

"Two guards with bayonets." 

"Tell me some more. How did they walk?" 

"Quite normally. I didn't see anything else, it's almost dark 
beyond the zone. Good-night." 

I climbed up into the bunk, cutting my legs on the rough edges 
of the planks, and squeezed into my corner. I lay motionless while 
Zyskind brought the bread, while the ragged body tumbled into the 
cell and ate its beastly meal on the floor. Time passed quickly now, 
for I had fallen into a state of sleep-sodden, oblivious numbness. 
It must have been near midnight when I heard three salvos from 
the direction of the shooting-range. Like the flash of the shot 
itself, my brain registered the fact before I was plunged in darkness 

The next day Dr. Loevenstein, who came to see me in the prison 
during Zyskind's absence, did not attempt to conceal the truth 
from me: 

"My friend, your heart is quite healthy, but the healthiest heart 
cannot go on for long pumping blood to legs as rotten and diseased 
as yours. I advise you to give up your illegal hunger-strike" here 
he smiled gently "and to return to the lawfully prescribed hunger. 
You will live three months in the peace and warmth of the mortuary, 
and during that time things may, after all, take a turn for the 

I shook my head in answer. I was feeling better now, I even 
climbed down to see the old doctor to the door. But that night 
the seventh of the hunger-strike, my sixth in the prison I felt a 


sharp pain in my heart and I was suddenly frightened. There is 
nothing worse than fear without an object, fear of something un- 
known; a mysterious presence seemed to be lurking everywhere 
by my side, at my feet, in my heart itself. . . . The other man stirred 
in his sleep underneath me and sighed deeply, and this gave me 
back some of my self-assurance; but as soon as he was quiet again, 
I suddenly fancied, I don't even know why, that he was dead. I 
slipped quickly down to the ground. I knocked hard and dreadfully 
long a whole eternity ! on T.'s wall, convinced all the time that at 
the distance of an outstretched arm a dead body was lying on the 
bunk, afraid to turn my back on it for even the shortest moment, 
until I felt something sticky trickling between the fingers of my 
clenched fist and stopped knocking. There was no answer. Could 
he be dead too? I was gathering my breath for a last desperate 
shriek, as if I wanted to shout out all the agony of my fear of death, 
when by my side I heard first a knocking and then the question : 

"What's the matter?" 

"You're alive! Thank God!" 

"I don't feel well, I'm weak . . ." 

"Let's give up the strike, we lost anyway when the others gave 
in. ... The nuns have been shot . . ." 

"No. /won't," he answered with unexpected force. 

I did not stir from my place. But when the body on the lower 
bunk sighed again and shouted something, I fell asleep heavily, and 
for the first time in many weeks I slept with a feeling of calmness and 

On the evening of the eighth day the unknown prisoner did not 
appear as usual, but Zyskind opened the door and told me to get 
ready to come out. 

"Where to?" I asked. 

"The guard-house." 

In the corridor I waited while Zyskind called out T. When he 
came out, I looked at his swollen face, and I saw in his stare the 
effort and the difficulty with which he was recognising my familiar 

"I suppose this is the end?" he asked quietly. 

I shrugged my shoulders. "I don't know. There aren't any 

At the guard-house, in the presence of an officer from the Third 
Section, we signed the text of a telegram to Professor Kot, the 


Polish Ambassador then officiating in Kuibyshev, and then, still 
escorted by Zyskind, we set off for the small hospital which had 
recently been opened at the other end of the zone. We walked 
supporting each other, yet lightly, as if we could take off from the 
earth at any moment. Thick snow was falling, covering the barracks 
up to their lighted windows. It was quiet, empty and peaceful. 

In the hospital our lives were saved by the silent "old Pole'' 
from the Ukraine, Dr. Zabyelski, who, contrary to explicit in- 
structions, gave us each two milk injections instead of the usual 
bread and soup. Thanks to them, we avoided instantaneous and 
fatal cramp of the intestines, and on the next evening, having eaten 
my first solid food for nine days a plate of thin boiled barley I 
went out to the latrine. In the small, hastily erected closet, with only 
a few planks in place of a door, I suffered the worst physical 
torments of my life, as the stone-hard turd, which my thirsting 
organismhad sucked dry of all its juices during eight days of hunger, 
forced its way through my guts, wounding and tearing them until 
the blood flowed. I must have been a sorry sight, crouching over a 
frozen plank, my jerkin blowing in the wind, looking out at the 
snowstorm which blew over the plain, with eyes full of tears of 
pain and pride. 


THE last stage of a prisoner's life in the camp was the mortuary, 
a large barrack situated between the kitchen and the maternity hut, 
where prisoners no longer capable of working were directed before 
their names were finally crossed off the list of the living. 

A prisoner was transferred to the mortuary on the basis of a 
medical examination, which could be repeated, when he stopped 
being a "working man" and became a "dokhadyaga" a word 
which can best be translated as u one who is dying by inches". 
Women prisoners who were unfit for work were either left in their 
barracks or sent from Yercevo to some unknown destination, as 
there was no separate mortuary for them. In theory, the mortuary 
provided an opportimity for the exhausted organism to recover its 
strength, but rest and idleness alone, without better nourishment, 
were not sufficient to revive even the youngest and healthiest 
prisoners. The mortuary brought release from the torture of daily 
work, but no relief from the agonies of daily hunger. On the 
contrary, hunger becomes really dangerous, and leads men to the 
verge of madness, particularly during long periods of idleness, 
when one has time to become fully conscious of it, when thoughts of 
it invade and fill every moment of the endless rest on the bunks. 
The crowd of beggars which gathered round the kitchen every 
evening, waiting for the dregs of soup from the cauldrons to be 
given out, came for the most part from the mortuary. 

The originally intended function of the mortuary was probably to 
make sick and exhausted prisoners fit enough to go back to work, to 
serve as a kind of miniature health resort; in practice, however, its 
nature was summed up in the nickname given to it by the prisoners 
a mortuary, a charnel-house. The mortuary food ration, 
although, as a shame-faced compensation for years of labour, it was 
usually fixed at the level of the second cauldron, was insufficient to 
stop the disintegration of body tissues; the occasional coveted 
spoonful of raw vegetables could not cure the usual diseases of the 
north scurvy and pylagra. Only a man with a very strong 
constitution, exhausted by work but still free from disease, could 



hope to regain strength in the mortuary, to live and work for a short 
time until he broke down again. Regular medical inspections 
divided the inhabitants of the mortuary into the "weaklings" and 
the "incurables". The weaklings were prisoners like myself who, it 
was considered, still had a prospect of returning to work after a 
period of rest; we were given a small additional ration, the so-called 
"weaklings' extra", and formed into a special brigade used for 
occasional light work inside the zone. The second category involved 
a diagnosis of "incurability in camp conditions", or in practice a 
sentence of slow death in the mortuary; the incurables were not 
forced to work, but neither did they receive any additional food. 
They could only wait patiently for the end. 

There were so few cases of recovery and return to work even 
among the weaklings that this division into categories was no more 
than a polite fiction, yet the inhabitants of the mortuary, though 
fully realising that despite artificial differentiations they were all 
doomed, always begged to be included in the first division. They 
were not so much eager for the additional foocl, as terrified by the 
death sentence contained in the word incurable. 

The hard price of complete peace and idleness was the irrevocable 
loss of all remaining hope. No one, thinking of the barrack to 
which sooner or later all the paths of the camp led, would have 
dared to compare its aimless idleness with the restfulness of the 
hospital. It stood a little apart from the zone, snowbound, 
solitary, abandoned by hope and avoided by the living, with frosted 
windows gleaming opaquely like the eyes of a blind man, and a 
white rag of smoke hanging over its roof like the flag of surrender. 
One might have said that it was not even in the camp, but beyond 
the wires, already on the side of eternal freedom. . . . And yet a 
prisoner in the mortuary did not even have the sympathy of others 
to accompany him on the last stage of his life's journey. "That 
rubbish, that shit, they eat our bread and do nothing for it. Better 
for us and for them if they were put out of their misery" that was 
the usual comment whenever the mortuary was mentioned in the 

My feelings as I walked to the mortuary for the first time from 
the hospital must have differed from those of my Russian fellow- 
prisoners in the same situation. Five days in hospital had not cured 
the swelling of my whole body or healed the sores on my legs; my 
nerves were relaxed after the tension of the hunger-strike, my whole 


organism open to a fresh attack of scurvy; but the taste of victory 
was still fresh enough to revive my hopes of survival. The mortuary 
seemed to be the best solution for me, as without a temperature I 
had no formal right to occupy a bed in the hospital, and with the 
prospect of a speedy release from the camp before me I preferred to 
spend my remaining days there in idleness, even in the constant 
presence of death, than to cling to the appearance of life by going 
out to work. I felt as if I was entering a leper colony, protected 
against the disease by impenetrable armour. And now, as once 
before, I felt ashamed because my fate was pushing me off the paths 
trodden before me by thousands of swollen and scrofulous legs like 

I walked past the infirmary, past the new outbuilding of the 
technical barrack, past the maternity hut. I stopped at every few 
steps, laying down the bundle with all my possessions, to look back 
at the zone. Below me, lit up by the frosty December sun and 
surrounded by a high wall of drifted snow, stood my old barrack, to 
which I knew that I should never return. Two pregnant women 
walked slowly to the infirmary, clasping their dumpy stomachs with 
red, frost-bitten hands. Beyond the wire, as far as the eye could see, 
stretched the white desert plain, bounded on the horizon by the 
thick line of the forest. As I stopped before the door of the 
mortuary to get my breath back, I saw the porters* brigade leaving 
the barrack and walking towards the bath-house. So much time 
had passed since I had marched out to work with them, so many 
new, unknown faces had taken the place of those whose names now 
dimly rattled in my memory like stones in an empty box. When 
they were passing the mortuary one of the porters recognised me, 
waved his hand in greeting and gaily called out: "Hullo, friend! 
Dying already?" 

In the mortuary I was greeted by curious glances from both the 
rows of two-tiered bunks. I laid my bundle on the table and started 
to look for Dimka. I found him in a far corner, on a lower bunk as 
usual (he believed that lying above other prisoners gave one a 
valuable sense of superiority, but his pin leg made it difficult for 
him to climb into the upper bunks), sleeping peacefully with his old 
wooden spoon in his hand. He had grown thinner since he had 
been classified as an incurable, but his greying beard was beautifully 
trimmed and pointed, and gave to his angular face an expression of 
mental resignation and inward peace. He woke when I touched his 


arm lightly. For a moment he seemed not to recognise me, pain- 
fully screwing up his eyes, hazy with sleep and so pale a to seem 
almost colourless, but then he raised himself on the bunk and 
welcomed me with a friendly smile. I am ashamed to say that I had 
not tried to see him from the moment when, having gathered up his 
things in our barrack, he shook my hand before leaving for the 
mortuary. Now he said almost through tears: "My son, my son, 
I've heard about everything. You're a brave boy!" and added, 
looking at my bundle : * 'Did they give you back the bread for those 
eight days?" He was indignant when I told him that after my 
hunger-strike the pile of untouched bread from my cell had been 
sent back to the bread store, on Samsonov's express orders. Dimka 
did not once ask me why I had moved into the mortuary; he had 
already guessed it all with that sixth sense which allows veteran 
prisoners to read everything in the faces of their companions. 

Near Dimka's bunk I found M., the Polish engineer, who had 
visited us in hospital twice, but had avoided mentioning the hunger- 
strike. Thanks to his tact the whole business was passing into 
oblivion, giving every one of us six Poles an equal share of hope. 
His silence, his forbearance to ask questions and require ex- 
planations, was a sincere, convincing gesture of solidarity. M. was 
also a new arrival at the mortuary, for until then, despite his 
inclusion in the weaklings' category, he had been allowed to 
go on living in one of the general barracks. He was lying on an 
upper bunk, and I recognised him from a distance by his long legs, 
wrapped in rags and hanging out beyond its edge. When I shook 
his leg he awoke from his dreams, or possibly his prayers, and 
made room for me on the bunk. There I stayed, sleeping and living 
on three narrow planks, since my neighbour on my right, the school- 
teacher from Novosybirsk who had once worked in the bath- 
house, refused to give up another inch of space for me. 

About midday Sadovski came back to the mortuary from the 
zone. They had already told me that he went out every day, 
morning and evening, to beg for soup by the kitchen. He always 
returned with an empty can, though not necessarily with an empty 
stomach, for he had reached that stage of hunger when he could not 
even wait until he had carried the soup back to the barrack, but 
gulped it down where he stood, rapidly and burning his lips. In his 
rare moments of sanity Sadovski's stories and his conversation 
were lively and interesting as before, but there were whole days 


when he seemed to notice nothing, and sat immovable on a bench 
at the table or by the fire, staring at one point with a fanatic stub- 
bornness, crouching back as if ready to jump at the throat of anyone 
who interfered with him; from this demented reverie he was 
roused only at meal-times by the tinkling of mess-cans outside. A 
silent but nonetheless passionate rivalry had developed between him 
and Dimka, for both had the reputation of being the most successful 
beggars at the kitchen and they must frequently have got in each 
other's way. Dimka treated Sadovski with unconcealed dislike, 
occasionally, without reason, justifying it by political arguments. 
But Sadovski, the old bolshevik, had long ago given up the 
brilliant displays of dialectic reasoning which had sometimes led 
him to logical self-annihilation, and if he talked at all it was only to 
recall the past. After my arrival at the mortuary relations between 
them improved considerably, so much so that in the evenings the 
three of us, together with M., would often sit down at the table to 
play draughts or talk. But I never saw them talking to each other 
when alone, and they never went out to the kitchen with the other 
inhabitants of the mortuary. 

The interior of the mortuary differed in its appearance from all 
other barracks. About a hundred and fifty of us lived in there. The 
first, and to some extent accurate, impression was that of a hostel 
for tramps and beggars. In the daytime some of the prisoners went 
out into the zone to look for food or to do the light work assigned 
to them, while the rest lay on their bunks talking in whispers, 
darning clothes, playing cards or writing letters. The most striking 
thing about the mortuary was the silence. No one commanded or 
enjoined it, but it was observed as strictly as if it had been enforced 
with regulations. We talked only in whispers, and then politely, 
with that typical guilty courtesy and consideration for others which 
is at once noticed in hospitals for the incurably sick. But for the 
fact that most of its inmates were no longer capable of controlling 
their natural functions, the mortuary could also have passed for the 
cleanest and tidiest barrack in the whole camp. We did not have 
our own orderly, but every day a different prisoner scrubbed the 
floor, washed down the tables and benches, wiped the window- 
panes with a wet rag, lit the fire and brought in the water. Pictures 
cut out of newspapers and family photographs in tin frames, 
decorated with a faded field flower, were pinned to the walls over 
some bunks. The room was bright, in good repair, with spaces 


between the bunks at every tenth sleeping-place. Frequently, after 
breakfast, arguments broke out between prisoners who each wanted 
to do the day's cleaning, for time hung on our hands dreadfully, 
and seemed to be seeping slowly away from us with our lives. Only 
towards evening, when the prisoners from the weaklings' brigade 
returned with news and gossip from the zone, and the electric lights 
went on, the mortuary came to life for a time with quite un- 
suspected reserves of energy. The very sight of prisoners playing 
draughts round the table or gathering in groups in the spaces 
between bunks was encouraging and comforting. Heat filled the 
barrack, opening the sores on our legs, opening too our hearts and 
our mouths. The bulbs shone above us, handfuls of light thrown at 
the frosted white tiles of window-panes. Voices were raised above a 
whisper, laughter was heard, and even the tentative harmonies of 
mouth-organs circled in the air, fluttering like moths in the bright 
circles of light. After nightfall the mortuary was silent again, 
but its accumulated suffering burst out with screams and babblings 
more piercing and more desperate than in any other barrack. The 
atmosphere was a stifling compound of exhaled breath, feverish 
sleep, and fetid excrements. 

But the peaceful illusion of normality was a mask which hid a 
brutal reality, seen and recognised only after a longer stay in the 
mortuary. Even the beggars and tramps of a prison camp had 
evolved a code of existence, a set of rules of behaviour which were 
themselves a caricature of the laws governing the lives of ordinary 
prisoners. For instance, in other barracks universal envy and greed 
were checked by the fact that everyone ate only as much he had 
earned by his work; mutual hatred was forgotten in common work 
and the consciousness of a common fate; even despair was some- 
times drowned by fatigue. But in the mortuary, where time dragged 
unbearably slowly, all these emotions were given full rein, and 
in the emptiness of an aimless life without hope the barrack became 
charged with an atmosphere of malice and hatred which grew in 
intensity like a flooding river behind the dam of artificial courtesy, 
almost, but never quite, sweeping it completely away. Sitting on 
those bunks in rotting clothes, with unshaven faces and dangling, 
swollen legs, the prisoners watched each other with suspicion, 
followed each other's every movement, wanted to know everything 
about each other. Those who were dying could not avoid the 
unspoken question "When?" reflected in the eyes of their com- 


panions; those who were returning to life bragged cruelly of their 
health. Expiring human emotions revealed themselves here in their 
primordial form, distorted and deformed but horribly vivid. One 
evening when I came into the barrack I found the Novosybirsk 
schoolteacher mercilessly tormenting two incurables, both in the 
last stages of pylagra. Once, for a pinch of tobacco, he used to tell 
us about the naked women he saw in the bath-house; now he was 
leaning back against a vertical beam, with his hands in his pockets 
and a cigarette-end in the corner of his mouth, and shouting at the 
incurables in his squeaky voice, encouraged by laughter from the 
neighbouring bunks: "That's what women are legs, thighs, 
breasts! It's no good even dreaming about it, brothers, you're no 
good for that sort of thing any more." Without even noticing it 
myself I was also beginning to accept and obey the cruel unwritten 
code of mortuary behaviour. I shall never forget the day when I 
was fortunate enough to be taken on to help in the kitchen for a few 
hours. I was forbidden to take food out from the kitchen and into 
the zone with me; but in the evening, when I had scrubbed all the 
cauldrons clean, and had eaten my fill in there, I suddenly saw, 
behind the frozen window-pane, Dimka's face, then Sadovski's, 
and two hands holding out empty mess-cans through the serving- 
.hatch under the window-pane. One of the cooks walked up to the 
window and suddenly slammed the hatch-cover down over the 
opening; the begging hands jerked with a spasm of pain, but 
rapidly withdrew outside without dropping their cans. I looked at 
the wretches on the other side of the glass with disgust, with 
loathing, although not long before I myself had started to come out 
in the evenings to beg for dregs of soup at the kitchen. It is a 
mistake to suppose that only a beggar who has broken away from it 
can understand the misery and suffering of his former companions. 
On the contrary, nothing repels a man so much and rouses him 
to rebellion as the picture of his own human condition carried 
to the lowest extreme of degradation, suddenly brought before his 

Nevertheless the mortuary gave prisoners who had known each 
other previously in the zone better opportunities for closer friend- 
ship. For over a year my relations with Dimka had been those of 
father and son, but it was only during our long conversations in the 
mortuary that I found out something about his old life. When the 
Revolution broke out, he was a very young priest in Verkhoyansk; 


they left him alone during the first few years, but then he himself 
rebelled, threw off his cassock, and became a notary's clerk. About 
1930 he married and went to the south of Russia, where he found 
work as a manual labourer. He worked hard, having in his own 
fashion become reconciled to communism, and forgot the past 
almost completely. He was the only man that I met in the whole 
camp who had wiped out thirty years from his memory so 
thoroughly that he seemed to grope with difficulty among the 
indistinct and vague recollections of his youth. The renunciation 
of his priestly calling in 1925 was the "second birth" to which he 
owed his youthfulness, but at the same time he had the mature 
wisdom of an old man which was rooted in a dim and akeady non- 
existent past. He was a strange combination of two personalities, 
and he himself often did not know which was the genuine one. 
From his youth he retained an understanding, sympathetic, in- 
stinctively religious attitude to human suffering, but whenever he 
became conscious of this, his fear expressed itself by a cynical, 
scoffing at every kind of faith. The most important thing for him 
and this was the echo of a young man, deformed by a premature 
struggle with life- was to eat and sleep as much as possible, to 
"take good care of yourself", as he would say. But like most 
atheists, he did not even suspect that his great gesture of religious 
rebellion was fundamentally more Christian than a thousand 
miraculous conversions. One evening I asked him when he had 
definitely stopped believing in God, and he told me that it was in 
1937, when he had chopped off his foot with an axe in Yercevo 
forest, in order to go to the hospital and save his faith in his own 
will, faith in himself, faith in man. In this respect he was the very 
antithesis of Sadovski, who until his last conscious moment in the 
mortuary retained his deep contempt for the human personality 
and his faith in an abstract philosophical system devised by the 
human brain. Dimka was arrested in 1936 for the crime of "priest- 
hood" which he himself had forgotten, and belonged to the almost 
extinct "old guard" of the Kargopol pioneers. His wife and his 
two children were arrested with him and transported to Central 
Asia. For five years he had heard nothing of them, and, what is 
stranger, did not want to know anything of them. 

A completely different type was M., who had the appearance and 
the bearing of an aristocrat even in his prison rags. Very tall and 
slim, with a well-bred, narrow face and deep-set eyes which ex- 


pressed sadness and pride at the same time, he moved about the 
barrack slowly and meditatively and did not speak to anyone there. 
The prisoners disliked yet respected him. He was able to remain 
aloof from them without offending or hurting anyone, though he 
did not avoid the discussion of any question which had some lasting 
importance. Anyone who did not know him better might have 
laughed at his comic aspect: incredibly long legs and arms seemed 
to trail behind him like those of a broken puppet, and from his eyes 
and nose thin streams issued and ran down his haggard face 
towards his mouth. Heart disease was not his only affliction; more 
painful were the frequent migraines connected with disturbances of 
the brain, when he sat over the table, supporting his head with his 
hands, his eyes convulsively closed, as if he was trying desperately to 
fall asleep. Sometimes it happened that he would suddenly stop by 
the bunks, lean back against a beam, close his eyes and put his hand 
to his forehead; then I knew that he was preparing to resist another 
attack. He also suffered from bad circulation, and it was pathetic to 
see him trying vainly to warm his limbs by the fire, crouching over it 
like his own shadow. But I never heard a word of complaint from 
his lips, and he did not allow hunger to dominate and distort his 
actions. He was hungry we knew that well enough but he ate 
what was given to him with dignity and calmness. His only passion, 
of which he could not cure himself until the end, was tobacco. 
Sometimes, having first looked all around, he would pick up a 
cigarette-end and hide it quickly in his pocket; I knew, too, that 
every other day he cut off half his starvation ration of bread to sell 
in the zone for a little tobacco. In one sense it was smoking that 
finished him, for he owed his prolonged detention in the camp, after 
the amnesty, to a denunciation by the camp official whom he had 
frequently visited for a cigarette and a chat. His political opinions 
were conservative, but he was interested deeply in only three things : 
God, Poland, and his wife. He had been arrested by the Russians on 
September 20th, 1939, three days after their entry into Poland, in 
one of the eastern regions where he had been working as a high 
official of the Ministry of Agriculture. He was sentenced first to 
death, then to ten years' hard labour. While he was in prison in 
Baranoviche he learnt that his wife had been sent into the depths 
of Russia, and when, in the camp, he was at last allowed to write 
her a monthly letter, all his attempts to contact her proved un- 
successful. His frightful headaches were, I am sure, largely caused 


by the effort of concentration with which, in moments of solitude 
and loneliness, he recalled to his memory one image to the ex- 
clusion of all others that of his wife. At night I slept next to him 
on the bunk he found full consolation in prayer. I have never in 
my life heard a man pray more beautifully than M. Sitting up on 
the bunk, his face hidden in his hand, he pronounced the words of 
prayer in a whisper so moving, so pregnant with tears and pain, that 
he might have been prostrated at the foot of the Cross in a trance of 
adoration for Him whose martyred body had never broken out with 
a word of complaint. . . . "Who are you praying for so hard?" 
I once asked him when I could not sleep. "For all mankind," he 
answered calmly. "Even for those who are keeping us here?" He 
thought for a while, and then replied: "No, those are not men." 

So in the evening we would sit down at one table, Dimka, 
Sadovski, M. and myself. Dimka enjoyed a game of draughts, 
and I played with him even though the monotony of the moves 
wearied me. Sadovski and M. cautiously discussed the latest 
developments at the front and watched our game. Sadovski, 
himself a Pole by origin (he had been born in Poland, and taken to 
Russia by his parents before the 1917 Revolution), hated M. for his 
inherent "lordliness" and his religious fervour. Dimka also mis- 
trusted M., and yet we formed the closest and most friendly group 
in the whole mortuary. Sometimes, when the light came on in the 
barrack and we left the bunks for the table, the empty place in our 
corner looked like a painful gap in a row of teeth. 

Just before Christmas all of us six Poles were given to read and 
acknowledge by signature a short verdict: "Detained in the camp 
by order of the Special Council of the N.K.V.D. in Moscow". This 
decision violently cut short our hopeful expectations of the future. 
I began to look at the mortuary in a different light, for it seemed 
that I would have to make my home there for a long time, if not for 
the rest of my days. 

Christmas was celebrated in the camp unofficially and 
surreptitiously. All religious holidays and festivals have been 
scrupulously abolished and erased from the Soviet calendar, and 
replaced with historical anniversaries connected with the October 
Revolution and with the lives of communist heroes; at liberty in 
Russia Sunday was an ordinary working-day, followed by the 
official "day off" on Monday. Among younger prisoners, brought 
up in the bolshevik mentality, there were some who did not even 


know the Christian traditions underlying the divisions of the week 
and the annual festivals. But older prisoners preserved the old 
calendar in their hearts and memories, carrying out its injunctions 
humbly and in secret. During my first Christmas in Yercevo, in 
1940, I was struck by the festive appearance of the barrack on 
Christmas Eve, and the large number of prisoners whose eyes were 
reddened by weeping. "All the best to you," they would say, 
shaking my hand, "for the next year at liberty." That was all. 
But anyone who knows a Russian prison camp will understand 
how much this meant. In Russia the name of liberty is not taken 
in vain. 

In 1941 we, i.e. the six Poles left in Yercevo, decided to celebrate 
Christmas together because the feeling of utter despair with which 
we greeted it was a common bond between us. The other four came 
to the mortuary in the evening, and before we broke the piece of 
bread which had been saved for this occasion, Miss Z. gave to each 
of us a handkerchief which she had embroidered with a Polish 
eagle, a fir branch, the date and a monogram. It was impossible to 
guess how she had got hold of the thread and the thin linen to 
make them, and difficult to believe that despite her heavy work at 
the saw-mill she had devoted at least five evenings to sewing them. 
Timidly and happily we handled these gifts (I have kept mine to this 
day), and thanks to them we were able for a moment to forget that 
our whole Christmas dinner was to consist of a piece of bread and a 
mugful of hot water. The sight of that small group of people, 
sitting round an empty table and crying with longing for their dis- 
tant country, must have commanded the unwilling respect of the 
mortuary's other inhabitants, who watched us from their bunks 
with gravity, while Dimka and Sadovski quickly went out into the 
zone. Late in the evening our conversation became more animated, 
and to this day I can remember the story of B., who, as a former 
officer of reserve of the Polish Army, was arrested in his barrack in 
Yercevo on the day after the outbreak of the Russo-German war 
and detained in the central prison. B. started talking unwillingly 
(most prisoners are superstitiously afraid of recalling their prison 
hearings and the whole period between their arrest and the passing 
of sentence), but as he continued he talked faster and eagerly, as if 
this revelation of events usually shrouded in mystery among 
prisoners was giving him relief. When he had finished the mortuary 
was already plunged in sleep. 




B.'s STORY* 

"I could not sleep on the night of June 22nd. The bunk seemed to 
be harder than usual. I could not stop thinking about the changes 
which the outbreak of war might bring in my life. I didn't go to 
sleep until it was nearly morning. As soon as I had fallen asleep, I 
was woken by a movement unlike the normal morning push. 
Samsonov's deputy was standing by my bunk and told me to get 
dressed quickly, but he wouldn't let me put on all my clothes, saying 
that I would come back to the barrack straight away. 

"Everyone was still asleep and the zone was peaceful. In the 
N.K.V.D. office Strumina was waiting for me with two armed 
soldiers. I was still sleepy, but I woke up with a start when I saw 
the indictment which she gave me to sign. I was accused of twofold 
treason against the Soviet Union, but despite pressure I did not sign 
it. Strumina told the soldiers to take me to the central prison. 
They did not allow me to collect the rest of my things from the 
barrack, but promised to let me have them in prison. 

"They pushed me into a small cell, about three yards by five, with 
double-tiered bunks and a small window with thick iron bars 
covered with boards on the outside. Over the door, in a small 
opening in the wall, there was a bulb in a wire cage. I was all alone. 
I began to realise what had happened, but I still didn't know why I 
had been arrested. Anyway, I thought, I was a prisoner twice over. 

"After an hour the door opened and five new prisoners from 
Yercevo came in. They were terrified. It's the war- -they kept 
repeating we'll all be shot. Why should they shoot us? I asked. 
As an example to others, they said. By morning there were already 
twenty-two prisoners in the cell, the remaining sixteen from other 
camp sections. I took a place on the bunk next to the window, it 
was my right as the first in the cell. Death was staring me in the 
face, but the instinct of self-preservation was as dominant as ever. 

"We spent the day discussing various possible reasons for our 
arrest. I was the only Pole there. Next to me lay Selezyonka, an 
Ukrainian lawyer from Poland. From other camp sections came 

* My memory of the above story has been confirmed by a letter from its 
narrator, who emigrated to Canada after the war. Some of the details, like 
the names of his companions in the prison, had to go out of necessity, erased 
by the passage of so many years, but the simple continuity of the narrative has 
been faithfully preserved. 


two Soviet generals, four lawyers one of them, Grosfeld, Professor 
of Law at Moscow University, claimed to have 'taught Stalin* two 
journalists, four students, one high-ranking officer of the N.K.V.D., 
a former camp chief, and a former camp supply officer. Of the 
other five, one was a hairdresser from Moscow who lamented his 
fate more than any of us, anxious for the safety of his family at 

"The air in the cell became more oppressive every day. You 
know what the summer is like here, thousands of mosquitoes flying 
into the cell through the small opening which served us for a 
window, hordes of fleas on the bunks, we all felt as if we were living 
through a fantastic, terrifying nightmare. 

"The cross-examinations began soon after. Every night two or 
three of us were taken out to the N.K.V.D. office. They would 
come back toward morning, beaten up and dreadfully shaken. 
They were forced to make fictitious confessions and to sign faked 
'protocols' of the hearings which had been prepared beforehand. 
The hairdresser, on the day after the war broke out, had been 
shaving a Jewish prisoner, who jokingly remarked that the labour 
camps would now become the recruiting ground of the Red Army. 
The hairdresser had answered laughing: 'Maybe, but I don't 
expect they'll take you you need a crooked rifle to shoot round the 
corner of a house. But still, we have plenty of rifles like that here, 
so perhaps even you will get into the Army." For those words he 
was accused of betraying his country. Another prisoner, when the 
bread ration was lowered after the outbreak of war, had remarked: 
c lf they're short of bread already, what'll happen to us in a month's 
time?' He too was accused of treason to the Soviet Union. Then 
it was my turn. I was taken at night to the N.K.V.D. office, about a 
mile from the central prison. They took me into a room where 
there was no furniture except a desk and two chairs. Then a captain 
of the N.K.V.D. came in with a thick file of documents it turned 
out to be the dossier of my first interrogation in prison. He let me 
sit down and offered me a cigarette, but I don't smoke anyway, and 
I refused it. It took him, two hours to read through the documents, 
two hours which seemed like eternity to me. The examining judge 
broke the silence first, and gave me a long lecture about the war with 
Germany, the power of the Soviet Union, and the wisdom and 
infallibility of Stalin. When he had finished, he told me to read and 
sign an indictment and confession which had been prepared in 


advance. I was accused of accepting work as a State official in 
bourgeois-capitalist Poland" (B. had been a high-school teacher), 
"although I was a farmer's son, thus betraying my class, and of 
discussing life in the West with my fellow-prisoners, thus betraying 
the Soviet Union. I wouldn't sign. The judge got up and kicked 
me suddenly so hard that I fell off the chair. Then he told me to 
squat on my heels and began all over again. I still wouldn't give in, 
so he kicked me once more, and threatened me with a revolver. 
The hearing went on till seven in the morning, and during the whole 
time I wasn't allowed to sit on the floor or to stop squatting. In the 
morning the judge told the soldiers to take me to the guard-house 
and to see that I didn't go to sleep. I sat at the guard-house, 
without food and water, till ten o'clock in the evening. I was taken 
back before the judge, and the whole procedure of the previous 
night was repeated. He kicked me and hit me in the face con- 
tinuously and sent me back to the cell towards morning completely 

"Then they left me alone for two weeks. All the others in the cell 
had finished their hearings. 

"After two weeks I was again told to sign the confession. This 
time there were four witnesses from the camp in the judge's office, 
two of whom I had never set eyes on in my life. Their testimony 
was hopelessly incriminating, but I still wouldn't sign. The judge 
lost all control over himself, beat me blindly and furiously, and 
threatened to 'shoot me like a dog' whether I signed or not. 

"Several days passed. Some of those in the cell advised me to 
sign the indictment, others encouraged me to hold out. At that 
time the trials began. The prisoners were called out of the cell at 
night, two at a time. Those who had been tried and sentenced did 
not return to our cell, but were placed in one opposite. The 
corridor in the prison was very narrow, so that we could shout 
across to them through the tiny opening for the light bulb. From 
their side we heard shouts announcing death sentences. After a few 
days there were only five of us left in the cell; one of the generals, 
Grosfeld, the self-styled 'tutor' of Stalin, one student, Selezyonka 
the lawyer and myself. One night they too were taken out, and I was 
left alone. But they came back towards morning, full of fresh hope. 
'Our cases have been postponed,* they said, 'we've still got some life 
in front of us.* After a week we were woken one night by unusual 
movements in the corridor. The door of the condemned cell was 


opened and our neighbours opposite told to come out. Those who 
resisted were dragged out forcibly. I heard them sobbing and 
screaming. The hairdresser shouted loudly: 'Whoever hears me 
and remains alive, tell my family in Moscow that I've been shot.' 
After a few minutes we heard the sounds of single shots and 
screams coming from the prison courtyard. Can you imagine what 
I felt like? My heart stopped beating and I could feel every vein in 
my skull pounding. After another few days my four companions 
were taken from the cell, and this time they did not come back. I 
was alone again. 

"Several weeks went by. One night I was woken up and taken 
before a tribunal which was sitting in the village school at Yercevo. 
Two women were the judges, the prosecutor was also a woman. I 
was expecting a sentence of death, but the prosecutor got up and 
announced that, in view of the agreement signed in London between 
the Polish and the Soviet Governments, I would not be tried at all. 
I couldn't at first understand what it was all about. On the judges' 
desk lay an open calendar, and I saw that the date was August 29th. 
I suspected a trap, but the court's decision was repeated to me and I 
was taken back to the cell. 

"Only there did I fully realise that, during my two-month stay in 
prison, the political situation must have undergone some change. 
In the first days of September I was told, through the opening in the 
door, to get ready to move out in ten minutes' time. In the court- 
yard six prisoners and five soldiers of the N.K.V.D. were already 
waiting. We marched off, towards an unknown destination. 

"In the evening our convoy reached the Second Alexeyevka. The 
penal camp there is divided into two zones. In one, the so-called 
free zone, the prisoners live normally in common barracks. In the 
other, called the isolation zone, and enclosed by a high fence and 
barbed wire, the penal brigades are imprisoned. We, of course, 
were directed to the isolation zone. 

"In the morning, when we were being driven out to work, I had an 
opportunity of learning more about conditions in the Alexe- 
yevka. Despite severe frost the prisoners were almost all barefoot 
and dressed in rags, and they could hardly move, they were so 
exhausted. Before my eyes two prisoners fell down and died on the 
spot as they were going out of the gate. In accordance with the 
orders of Soroka, the camp chief, the prisoners marching out to 
work did so to the strains of an accordion. On my first day three 


prisoners in the brigade dropped dead at work. Within the isolation 
zone stronger prisoners murdered the weaker and took their food 
with perfect impunity. 

"I worked hard, and after two v/eeks I managed, by promising to 
behave well, to obtain a transfer to the free zone. This part of the 
story won't interest you so much, but I'll just tell you that in the 
free zone I found a barrack inhabited exclusively by 123 Polish 
prisoners. One day we all decided to strike and we refused to go to 
work, demanding to be released from the camp in accordance with 
the terms of the amnesty. The very idea of an amnesty was some- 
thing so unprecedented in the annals of Soviet labour camps that 
Soroka, instead of taking his usual course in such cases and 
sending a platoon of soldiers with a light machine-gun to the barrack 
to shoot every one of us down, hastily sent us off to Krouglitza. 
From there I, and I alone, was sent to Yercevo with a detachment 
at the end of September. I don't know what happened to the others 
but, believe me, when I saw Yercevo I felt as if I was returning 

Life in the mortuary was approaching its predestined end. In 
January my body began to swell again, and I stayed on my bunk 
most of the time, eating only what Dimka brought me. I was not 
hungry, though, but lay for days on end without moving, with the 
greatest consolation that a dying man can enjoy- the comfort of 
memory. Most often I dreamed (for I was really half-asleep) that, 
late in the evening, I was walking home from the railway station of 
my native village in Poland. And though it was after nightfall I 
could see distinctly, as if in a dark light, first the sandy road which 
ran parallel to the railway track, then the small spinney, then the 
large clearing with a deserted villa in the middle, the stream, and 
next to it the hill where during the First World War they had buried 
dead artillery horses, and finally the road leading to our pond, 
overgrown with rushes and reeds. I climbed down to the shallow 
stream, jumped over a few stepping-stones and walked slowly 
towards the house along the bank planted with tall alder trees. The 
evening was cool, but dry after a whole day's drought, and a full 
moon hung above the old mill like a gleaming ducat, leaning gently 
against the point of the lightning-conductor; and from the direction 
of the fields I caught the crying of wild ducks and the plashing of 


feeding carp. As I approached the two larches which my childish 
imagination had fixed as the meeting-place of two ghosts who were 
imprisoned in the daytime under the large mill-stone, I was seized 
by my old fear and started to run. I opened the garden gate care- 
fully and climbed up on to the ledge of the wall under the window; 
round the table I could see my father, our housekeeper, both my 
sisters, my brother with his wife and her daughter. I tapped on the 
window, and at the moment when they all got up from the table to 
welcome me after so many years of absence, I woke on the bunk, 
crying, with my hand pressed to my heart. This dream returned so 
exactly and with such unfailing regularity that I found fresh 
happiness in the expectation of it, in humbly praying for it when it 
began to get grey in the barrack. 

Many storms troubled the peaceful course of life in the mortuary. 
One evening an old collective farmer from the region of Kalouga 
jumped down from a bunk, and frantically beating with his fist on 
the bottom of an empty tin, proclaimed "the end of all this suffer- 
ing", with his own Second Coming "I am Christ in the rags of a 
prisoner." When this was greeted with derisive laughter, he stood 
with his face to the bunks and his back to the fire and looked at us 
for a moment imposing, tall, almost splendid with his out- 
stretched arms and the blunted face of a madman then rapidly 
turned round and jumped into the open fire. His body terribly 
burnt, he was taken to the hospital the same evening. 

Another time Sadovski, who for several days had not spoken to 
anyone, placed a table in the middle of the barrack, sat down 
behind it as if at a desk, and shouting out a string of strange foreign 
names, he added to each, with frightening monotony and fury, the 
command: "This is a revolution! Firing squad for you! To the 
wall with him! To the wall!" All this lasted no longer than a 
quarter of an hour, but, perhaps because he had been my friend, 
this nightmarish cry, in which his whole life, from the past, through 
the present, and into the future, was contained, has lodged deepest 
in my memory as the last dominating impression of my stay in the 


ON January 19th the junior officer of the Second Section, who used 
to walk round the timber depot, when I worked there, with a list of 
releases in his hand, finally remembered my existence, and told me 
to report the next morning at the office for a certificate of my 
release from the camp. It came just in time; I crawled off my bunk 
with difficulty and, together with M., went round to say good-bye 
to all my Polish friends in the camp. In everyone's life there are 
moments of such stupefaction that a long time passes before the 
organism wakes from its numbness, sleepiness and insensibility. 
When I looked at the small group of people with whom only six 
weeks ago I had agreed to strike, I understood that it is possible 
to suffer in solitude, but not to be happy. "Don't forget us", they 
said, shaking my hand, "tell them where we are, tell them to get us 

To M. I said good-bye in the morning, on our bunk. He was due 
to visit the medical hut that morning, and could not see me to the 
guard-house on my way out. "God won't abandon us," he said, 
embracing me affectionately. "But in case we shouldn't meet 
again, I wish you all the best." He walked out of the mortuary 
without looking back, and his long legs seemed to be dragging two 
heavy stones behind them. 

So only two friends saw me off at the guard-house, Dimka and 
Olga. I woke Sadovski in the mortuary to say good-bye, but he 
simply stared at me deliriously for a moment, swore vilely, and 
covered his head again with a stinking jerkin; Dimka, when he 
heard that I was being released, put on the clean shirt in which he 
wanted to be buried and, limping on his wooden leg, held my hand 
until we reached the guard-house. "My son," he repeated with 
trembling lips, "my son, good luck to you. We are all finished, 
there is only death in store for us, but you're still a boy, you deserve 
to be free." Olga was waiting by the guard-house to see me off; she 
had grown thin and withered since she had been sent to the timber 
depot to load wood, and now could not keep her tears back as we 
said good-bye. I felt dreadfully sad and unhappy. Dante did not 



know that there is no suffering in this world greater than to ex- 
perience happiness before the unhappy, to eat in front of the 
hungry. I kissed them both in silence. Just as I was leaving, old 
Iganov ran out from the barrack (it was the first rest-day in the 
camp since the New Year), and, taking me aside, gave me a card to 
post to his family. I walked slowly beyond the zone for the first 
time in two years without a guard to the office of the Second 
Section, where my papers had been prepared for me. At the bend 
of the road I turned round for a last glimpse of the camp. Dimka 
was still waving his wooden stick from the distance, and Olga was 
wearily walking back to the women's barrack. 

In the Second Section I was given a list of the places for which I 
could get a railway ticket and a permit for residence. There was no 
possibility of joining the Polish Army. The N.K.V.D. officer, now 
all politeness, pretended ignorance of its whereabouts; even if he 
had known its exact location, I could not have got there, for the 
route that prisoners released from the Kargopol camp were allowed 
to take stopped at the Urals. Haphazardly, I chose Zlatoust, near 
Chelyabinsk, though I never reached it. Large towns like Sverd- 
lovsk or Chelyabinsk were "rezhimnye goroda" literally "regime 
towns" where it was possible to reside only by special permission, 
which needless to say would not be granted to prisoners newly- 
released from labour camps. 

At Yercevo station I learnt that the next train for Vologda would 
not leave till dawn on the following day. I found a warm resting- 
place on the floor near the stove in the waiting-room, and I went 
out to look at all the places which before I had seen only through 
barbed wire. As I walked I constantly fingered through my clothes 
my rustling new papers and Iganov's postcard. I am ashamed to 
confess it, but I never did post that card, and it lies before me on the 
table as I write. As long as I was within five hundred kilometres of 
the camp, I became panic-stricken whenever I approached a post- 
box, as if paralysed by the thought that I might return to Yercevo 
for helping Iganov to commit this offence. Once I got beyond the 
Urals, I forgot about it completely in my breathless pursuit of the 
Polish Army. Poor, honest Iganov! For a long time he must have 
wondered, praying at night on his bunk, how it was that the card, 
put into such apparently safe hands, had never reached its destina- 
tion. Today I read it as I might a document, taken from a bottle 
thrown up by a stormy wave on a safe shore. It is addressed to his 

Jm tiH, |^ i||* I tt 

U $ t I i, i ?^ll%iV*.js 

vf ?M * j nuxKijM 

^ ;H < v* ' 'I I ^%|ul] 


IP i'lf* 1 ! 


la*. i J^i!4H* 

IN THE URALS, 1942 229 

wife in Kazakhstan, though Iganov came from the Volga country, 
so I suppose that after his imprisonment his family was sent into 
exile in Asia. The card's text, besides numerous greetings to all 
nearer and more distant relations whose names are preceded by the 
traditional "most honoured", contains only one sentence which 
could explain and justify Iganov's attempt to evade the scrutiny of 
the camp censor's office: "I am still alive and well." And despite 
his religious faith, Iganov was cautious enough, when thanking 
God for watching over his family, to write His name with a small 

That evening I saw the camp from a hill near the station; it 
looked so small that I could have put it in the palm of my hand. 
Vertical columns of smoke rose from the barracks, lights shone in 
the windows, and but for the silhouettes of four high crow's-nests, 
cutting the night with the long knives of searchlight-beams, 
Yercevo could have passed for a quiet, peaceful settlement of 
foresters or charcoal-burners, resting after a heavy day's work. 
Straining my ears, I could catch the sound of chains and capstans 
turning on the wells from the earliest days of civilisation a sign of 
untroubled peace. 

In Vologda our train ran into a siding and the guard calmly 
announced that for the moment the journey was over. I had not 
come far, and if I went on travelling at this pace, I could have little 
hope of reaching the nearest detachment of Polish troops before 
spring. But at least I had arrived at Vologda station early enough 
to reserve a sleeping-place on the bare earth floor of the station 
waiting-room. Several hundred released prisoners had been living 
here for a month; apart from a handful of Poles, they were mostly 
short-term criminal prisoners, released from the camps as volunteers 
for the front before their sentences were finished. In the day- 
time they were driven out into the town, where they spent their time 
looking for food, and in the evening the enormous waiting-room, by 
permission of the N.K.V.D., served as a dormitory for them. I 
hesitate before describing the four nights which I spent in Vologda, 
for I do not believe that literature could sink so low without losing 
some of its character as the artistic expression of things commonly 
known and experienced. Enough, then, to say that we slept next 
to each other, lying on our sides packed together like herrings in a 


barrel, and giving out an inhuman stench. In the yellowish-green 
light of the night bulbs, the faces of sleepers, their open mouths 
gaping like holes, looked like the death-masks of drowned men. 
Every attempt to wade through the mass of bodies at night to reach 
the nearest bucket usually ended in someone's death. If the foot 
landed on someone's chest, rising and falling with the unquiet 
breath of feverish sleep, a short choking moan gave warning that 
one should step aside, but I myself, still half-conscious after waking 
up suddenly, once stepped on someone's face. One of my legs was 
wedged between two bodies, and trying to free it I moved my whole 
weight on to my other leg, and felt a spongy mass splintering and 
crackling under my heavy boot, while blood spurted from under the 
sole. A moment later I was sick into the bucket, though I had not 
come to it for that. Every morning at least ten bodies, stripped 
naked by their fellow-guests in the waiting-room, were carried out 
and laid on the open trucks. 

At dawn we had to leave the station and we went begging in the 
town. I found a small street in the working-class district, where 
every day about noon a grey-haired old woman beckoned to me, 
first having made certain that no one was looking, and took me into 
her kitchen, where she gave me a mugful of unsweetened herb tea 
and a slice of stale bread. We never exchanged a word beyond my 
"spasiba" "thank you", and her "idi z Bogom" "God be with 
you". Once, wandering aimlessly round the town, I blundered into a 
small square and found in a red-brick house the local office of the 
People's Commisariat for War, something like a recruiting centre 
for volunteers. A stout captain received me behind his desk, backed 
by an enormous wall-map of the Soviet Union, politely offered me a 
cigarette, and, when I asked him where the Polish Army in Russia 
was being formed, suggested that I would do far better to join the 
Red Army. Another time, I remember, I stood in a bread queue 
and witnessed an incident which I shall remember all my life. A 
wounded Soviet soldier, who had lost his right leg during the 
defence of Leningrad, dragged himself to the queue on crutches and 
asked, quietly and politely, if he might not enter the shop without 
having to wait, for he had only been out of hospital a few days and 
found it difficult to stand for any length of time on his one healthy 
leg. He was answered by a hostile murmur and maliciously told that 
he need be in no hurry, for with only one leg he would not be taken 
back to the front anyway. His face was full of such helpless despair 

IN THE URALS, 1942 231 

that I would willingly have given him my bread, but my weak and 
diseased legs would not allow me to stand in the queue until I 
reached the door of the shop. Thus the contempt for a damaged 
machine which is out of circulation has permeated all strata of the 
Russian people and has polluted fundamentally honest hearts. 
Besides, the war itself was not particularly popular in Vologda in 
January 1942. The queues were full of complaints about the food 
shortages and the chaotic conscription which had left many 
families without a single bread-winner, and twice I even overheard 
the whispered question: "When are these Germans coming?" 
Vologda was a bottleneck on the railway, corked with consignments 
of damaged furniture, machinery and factory plant from Leningrad. 
In all larger public buildings detachments of soldiers, moved back 
from the front for a short rest, were bivouacking; in the evenings 
they haunted private flats and living-quarters like a flock of hungry 
birds, playing sadly on mouth-organs, and always eagerly searching 
for vodka. I had nothing to wait for in Vologda. On the morning of 
the fifth day, instead of going out into the town as usual, I walked 
out along the railway tracks, and about midday I jumped on a 
train, whose destination was then quite unknown to me, which had 
stopped for a moment about half a mile outside Vologda station. 

Inside the warm and comfortable compartment I was welcomed 
with surprise, though without a word of protest, by several sleepy 
naval officers, who were travelling on orders from Archangel to 
the Black Sea. For the first time since I left the camp I recognised, 
in their conversation, the quiet and discreet feeling of Russian 
patriotism. It did not appear to me to be very spontaneous, for 
after the inevitable "We shall win" which accompanied every fresh 
revelation about the new epaulettes and medals which were being 
issued to the officers, the speakers would go back to sleep, shading 
their eyes with the lowered peaks of their caps. After three hours' 
journey the guard found me in the compartment and put me out of 
the train at the tiny station of Bouy. 

In Bouy fate smiled at me when I was near despair. I spent the 
night at the station, and in the morning I went out to look at the 
small pleasant town. In the square I saw a small church painted 
gold and green, and with astonishment I noticed that the sign "anti- 
religious museum", which I had seen hanging in front of the 



Vitebsk church, was absent from its rotting wooden doors. In the 
dark, chilly nave three old women knelt together; at the sound of 
my footsteps they raised their heads, got up, and walked quickly out 
without looking at me or at each other. I was evidently young 
enough to arouse fear and suspicion. 

The day was frosty and sunny, but there was no wind, and on the 
brittle, powdery snow my steps sounded confident, almost gay. I 
wandered among the small streets, I walked beyond the town into a 
large field, and returned to the square: everywhere the same thing 
closed shutters and not a soul in sight. Near the wooden head- 
quarters of the fire brigade I found on a rubbish heap a large piece 
of black bread. I scraped it clean of mud and mould with my camp 
penknife and, having moistened it with snow, I ate it hungrily and 
greedily. The station waiting-room was still empty, but my morning 
walk had so refreshed me that the very sight of a lonely station- 
master in a red cap, tapping out mysterious signals in the silence of 
the frosty morning, his hand on the brass hammer of his telegraph 
set, brought to light from under the rubble of my damaged memory 
the first verse of Tuvim's well-known poem about the life of a love- 
sick telegraphist on a lonely, isolated Russian railway station. 
Things could not be so bad, I thought, if I can still remember poetry. 

The stationmaster looked at me with suspicion for a few minutes. 
Finally he got up from his desk, came up to me and asked me if, for 
a plateful of soup and a pound of bread, I would unload a truckful 
of railway sleepers, which, for lack of labour in the town, had been 
standing for several days in a siding. If I had not just eaten my 
breakfast by the fire-brigade headquarters, I would have agreed 
without a moment's hesitation. But now I put a higher price on 
myself, and demanded, in return for my work, a seat on the next 
train for Sverdlovsk. The stationmaster shrugged his shoulders and 
returned to his work. Fifteen minutes later, after much haggling, 
the bargain was struck: he would give me immediately a plateful of 
hot soup, and if I worked till evening he agreed to put me on the 
express from Moscow to Sverdlovsk, which at midnight stopped at 
Bouy for one minute. Exactly at eleven that night I came for my 
pay with bleeding hands and frost-bitten legs. The stationmaster 
kept his word, and an hour later I was sitting huddled in the dark 
corridor of a railway carriage, travelling rapidly towards Sverd- 

I fell asleep almost instantly, and as I thawed in the warmth of the 

IN THE URALS, 1942 233 

corridor, my dreams became pleasant and peaceful. I was woken 
by a hand which reached out from within a dark compartment, 
inviting me inside. Unwillingly, rather nervous, I entered the 
compartment. By the light of a shaded blue bulb I could just make 
out the forms of six sleeping women. The woman who had asked 
me in woke her companions, and a few minutes later I was sitting 
back on a bench strewn with cushions, drinking sweetened tea from 
a thermos flask and eating bread with dripping on it. My hospitable 
fellow-travellers turned out to be workers from a Moscow steel 
works which was being evacuated wholesale into the Urals; their 
machines stood on open trucks at the rear of the train. They were 
indeed kind to me they concealed me on the upper bunk of the 
compartment until we reached Sverdlovsk and they shared their 
food with me the whole way; but I shall never forget that they 
respected me as a human being, refusing to be put off by my filthy, 
lousy rags, and bearing bravely the stench of my dirty, festering 
body. I mentioned only once my stay in prison and in the camp, 
but I said no more about it when I saw the expression of fear and 
distrust in their eyes. But we talked much of the war, of the winter 
offensive which was being prepared, of the partial evacuation of 
heavy industry from Moscow, and the cruelties committed by the 
Germans in the occupied regions. It is possible that at the time I 
was moved by this unexpected kindness, or else my mental faculties, 
weakened by so many painful experiences, suddenly relaxed in the 
safe warmth of the compartment, but I believe that never again, not 
even in the Polish Army in Russia, did I meet with such a sincere 
and touching expression of patriotism. The women outdid each 
other in telling me stories of the courage and sacrifice of the people 
of besieged Moscow, of their own work, which often continued, 
with short breaks, during whole days and nights, of the readiness 
with which they now abandoned their homes and families in order 
to rush to the Urals at the call of "the Government and the Party" ; 
the gleam of hatred and enthusiasm in their eyes was unfeigned as 
they assured me that they would not hesitate to give up their lives in 
the defence of their Fatherland against the German invader. I 
particularly remember one of them, a young girl in the sixth month 
of her pregnancy, who writhed with pain at every sharp jolt of the 
carriage, and as she talked laid her thin and work-soiled hands on 
her bulging belly, like a Dutch peasant woman from one of Van 
Gogh's earlier canvases. A little later I learnt of what inhuman 


effort the Soviet industry is capable. On the third day of my short 
stay in Sverdlovsk I went for a lonely walk round the town, and in a 
small valley I found the women of the same Moscow steel works 
standing on improvised wooden scaffoldings, busy at their machines 
with bare hands. Thick snow fell all round them, as over their 
heads carpenters and builders were putting the first tiles of the roof 
into position over hastily erected beams. 

The greater part of my journey I spent on the luggage-rack, and 
I remember only that the train stopped at Vyatka and Perm. 

It was January 30th when I arrived in Sverdlovsk. This is the 
first date which I quote not from memory, but from the evidence of 
a diary which I kept at the time. It was a sign of my rapid return to 
health that as soon as I came to Sverdlovsk I was seized with a 
desire to write, and with my last few kopeks I bought a little note- 
book and pencil at the station. The writing on its pages is now worn 
and hardly legible. "The town" I wrote "resembles a contour- 
map made of plasticine. The old 'Ekaterynburg' is built mostly of 
wood. Even in the centre of the town one can find small wooden 
one-storeyed houses with curious little domes and carved orna- 
ments this is the architecture of the Russian mercantile middle 
class. Beyond, it is all brick factory-blocks with tall chimneys, and 
red churches. The third layer is the modern Sverdlovsk hideous, 
vulgar houses, hung with portraits of Lenin and Stalin, covered 
with garish posters and slogans. The town has no vitality, it rolls 
over from side to side like a wounded animal, plagued by its human 
vermin. The effect of war can be seen at every step. Over two 
million natives, refugees and evacuees are living in the town. 
Nothing but queues and tired faces everywhere. In the street where 
the headquarters of district administration and local offices of the 
Government are collected there is no distribution of bread and 
soup, nothing to stand in the queues for. Few soldiers, but many 
new recruits in their old civilian clothes, with rifles slung over their 
shoulders. Everywhere can be seen efforts of organisation which 
produce no result. Life here is competitive if you want anything, 
you must fight for it yourself. The evenings are more pleasant, the 
trams are crowded, the streets fill with people. Sverdlovsk has no 

This colourless, but on the whole I believe faithful, description 



IN THE URALS, 1942 235 

was the first thing that I had written for two years. What strikes me 
about it now is the exaggeration (that "wounded animal"!) so 
typical of a young writer who tries to capture an impression while it 
is still fresh in his mind. If today I were to attempt a description of 
Sverdlovsk, I should probably lay greater emphasis on human 
beings than on architecture. I remember workers, returning from 
factories in the evening, who gathered under the street megaphones 
to hear the latest war news. Their faces were grimy, unshaved, their 
eyes without a spark of life. They listened in silence, and then 
departed in twos and threes for their evening dose of political 
discussion and propaganda. Their hunched shadows merged into 
the grey snow-mist, like water rats which creep out at dusk from 
their holes in the ice. The silent crowd moved slowly through the 
narrow streets into the squares and dispersed, some joining the 
queues, others entering the brightly-lit doors of eating-houses. 
Only the clanging trams formed any sort of livelier contrast to the 
enormous five-pronged star of electric bulbs which glared from the 
roof of one of the Government offices. I remember a group of 
soldiers who knelt in the frozen road, patiently breaking up the ice 
with sharp little hammers to make a way for a convoy of tanks. 
About midday a shrill whistle from one end of the street caused all 
the junior officers to spring up from the pavements. After a moment 
a gentle cloud of perfume which floated on the air from a distance 
was followed by a Russian general, covered with medals and 
surrounded by his staff. He walked slowly, kicking his way through 
the kneeling soldiers with violent asides of his boot. I also re- 
member a perfectly-equipped and armed Siberian division, in white 
uniforms like siren-suits and hoods of white fur with holes for the 
eyes and mouth. The soldiers spent several hours at Sverdlovsk 
station on their way from the Far East to the Leningrad front; 
before the eyes of the hungry crowd they ate tinned meat and 
biscuits made of white flour, but not one of them dropped a scrap of 
food into the trembling, expectant hands held out all round him. 
Finally, I remember a Russian soldier who was having his photo- 
graph taken for his family outside the station. He spread his right 
hand on his chest, like Balzac in the well-known daguerreotype, but 
he would not allow the photographer to press the little rubber bulb 
until he had pushed back the sleeve of his greatcoat to show an 
enormous wrist-watch. . . . 
When I moved into the station waiting-room on my first day in 


Sverdlovsk I joined a small handful of Poles who were living there. 
They informed me that the next train for Chelyabinsk would leave 
in about ten days' time, that soup was distributed every day in an 
abandoned truck beyond the main line, that any solitary woman 
waiting for a train could be had in a dark corner near the cloak- 
room, and that no one in Sverdlovsk had ever heard of the Polish 
Army in Russia. In the afternoon I went out into the town. On the 
day before I had left Yercevo, a prisoner in the transit barrack 
had asked me to visit the wife and children of General Kruglov, if 
ever during my wanderings I happened to pass through Sverdlovsk. 
Kruglov himself was a prisoner in the Ostrovnoye camp section, 
and immediately after the outbreak of the Russo-German war he 
had received an additional sentence, rounding off his seven remain- 
ing years to fifteen. My mission was not very pleasant, but I held on 
to it as the only point of stability in my life at freedom. I found the 
address a tall, dirty apartment house, in a narrow street whose 
name I have now forgotten. There an old housekeeper, glancing at 
me suspiciously, led me through the courtyard to a small flat on the 
ground floor. I found the general's daughter, Nadia Kruglov, a 
lovely fourteen-year-old girl with dark, thoughtful eyes, sitting at 
the table over a stack of notes and text-books. She received me 
politely, and with a certain eagerness when she learnt that I had 
come from her father's camp. The dark room was crowded with 
shabby antique furniture, and the murky yellow air of evening was 
seeping in through a broken window which was partly covered with 
plywood. It was so cold in the flat that the girl was wearing felt 
boots, mittens, and a fur coat thrown over her shoulders. I had a 
thorough wash in the kitchen, my first in two months. While 
waiting for Mrs. Kruglov, I sat at the table with Nadia and helped 
her with her work; as we pored over maps and struggled with sums 
together, we became good friends. In the evening her mother 
returned, a woman still beautiful despite signs of tiredness and lack 
of sleep, and the horn-rimmed glasses which hid dark, sparkling 
eyes like Nadia's. She laid a pound loaf of bread on the table and 
looked enquiringly at her daughter. When she learnt that I had 
brought news of the general, she immediately asked me to go into 
the kitchen with her. 

"Did you tell Nadia about her father's new sentence?" she asked 

"No," I answered, "I quite forgot about it. In the camp no one 

IN THE URALS, 1942 237 

pays much attention to sentences, for it is impossible to imagine 
oneself living to the end of them." 

"Oh, thank God," she cried, taking no notice of the meaning 
hidden in my words. "You see, her teachers and school-friends 
persecute Nadia so much because her father is in a camp, that she 
would never go to school again if she knew that his sentence had 
been increased." 

We came back into the room just as the Kruglovs* old nurse, who 
had come in to eat as usual with her former mistress, was serving 
dinner. On a white tablecloth appeared a steaming tureen of soup 
and a samovar. I was strangely moved and a little intimidated by it 
all. The nurse cut a piece of bread from her ration and handed it to 
me across the table, saying that at her age one can do without 
bread; we sat round the table and wanned our hands on the heated 
metal of the samovar. Mrs. Kruglov never mentioned her husband, 
and cut short any of my allusions to the camp with a warning glance 
of her sad eyes; we talked of indifferent matters. She told me that 
she worked very hard as a typist, that she earned little, and that in 
the evenings she could hardly keep awake during the political 
discussions which the whole office had to attend after work. Her 
eighteen-year-old son, who had always wanted to be an officer, was 
turned down by the Army "because of his father", and was now 
digging trenches in Leningrad in an auxiliary brigade of volunteers. 
Nadia complained with tears in her eyes that they would not take her 
into the school "Komsomol", the Communist Youth Organisation, 
"because of Father," and that she was not allowed to join in sports 
and games after school, but added that in two years' time, "when 
Daddy comes back," everything would be changed. The old nurse 
rocked sleepily in her chair like an owl, mumbling with toothless 
gums her eternal, monotonous "God help us." After dinner we 
opened a large atlas on the table under the porcelain shade of the 
oil-lamp, and, laughing together, we planned long journeys abroad. 
The old nurse would not join us, saying "Don't worry about me 
I was born in Russia, and in Russia I want to die." I was so happy 
there that suddenly I thought how much I would give to be able to 
spend just one night under a family roof even on the floor in the 
tiny kitchen. Mrs. Kruglov, however, did not invite me, and looked 
at her watch repeatedly. During my two years in prison and camp I 
had almost completely lost any feeling of sensitivity or politeness, 
but now, in this atmosphere of genteel poverty, I felt so timid that it 


was only with difficulty that I managed to ask for the favour of one 
night's lodging. 

"Did anyone see you come in?" Mrs. Kruglov asked nervously. 

"Yes, the caretaker showed me the way here." 

She suddenly seemed to lose control of herself and began to sob. 
"I can't, for God's sake, I really can't. My husband in prison, my 
children treated like outcasts . . . they hardly allow us to breathe. 
... Do you know what it feels like to be dragged out at night by 
the N.K.V.D. ... to beg for work as if it were charity? Don't 
bring any more suffering to this house! Please go, please go at 
once, and never come back here!" 

It was past midnight when I made my way to the station through 
the deserted streets. 

My diary here describes, in touchingly nai've and sentimental 
language, a romantic episode which, looking back on it seven years 
later, hardly appears to be romantic at all. On my fifth day in 
Sverdlovsk I met Fatima Soboleva, a young Georgian woman who 
was dozing on a bench like the rest of us, waiting for a train to 
Magnitogorsk. I felt attracted to her not only because she was 
exceptionally pretty a round face with a dark complexion, skin 
covered with a soft down, long jet-black hair which in the day- 
time she wound round her head in plaits and at night combed out 
round her shoulders, her ivory-white teeth gleaming in the dark 
but also because I noticed that she often took from a small basket 
portions of cheese, cold meat, and butter for her bread. Fatima was 
an official of the Communist Party's City Executive Committee at 
Magnitogorsk, and her Party card opened the doors of the shops 
which remained closed to us. She was stranded in Sverdlovsk for 
several days on her way home from Omsk, where she had travelled 
to visit her wounded husband, also a Georgian, an officer of the 
artillery, who at the time of the outbreak of war had been stationed 
in Lithuania. She spoke of him often, chattering unconcernedly 
about his wound: "He's no good to me any more, they've am- 
putated both his legs. Of course it's a pity, but I can't be expected 
to sleep with an invalid for the rest of my life." 

I became very fond of her, and once or twice we even went 
together into the dark corner by the cloak-room. Fatima tried to 
persuade me to give up all thought of going off to the war, and to 
come with her to Magnitogorsk. "What nonsense you talk!" she 
would say in a complaining voice, "life is too short for that sort of 

IN THE URALS, 1942 239 

thing. They're not dragging you off to the Red Army, why push 
yourself in? You're well educated, I'm a Party member, I can fix 
you a good job at home." 

She would not believe a word of what I told her about the labour 
camps. "Nonsense, nonsense," she would shake her head decisively. 
"There is nothing like that in the Soviet Union. Anyone can get 
scurvy up in the north, and their clothes torn at work. If you come 
with me your legs will heal, I'll see that you get clothing coupons, 
and everything will be all right." Butin the evenings, when we would 
walk aimlessly about in the snow, she would interrupt my prison 
reminiscences with a nervous tug at my arm. "Didn't they teach 
you in the camp," she would whisper, looking carefully behind her, 
"to keep your mouth shut in the street. Anyone might be passing 
by in the dark. You could be picked up here and now." Indeed I 
could not distinguish anyone in the shadowy, murmuring, and 
horribly anonymous crowd which flowed through the streets. 
We would stop in front of the bright windows of eating-houses to 
read the list of dishes, headed by the eternal cabbage soup. 

"Why don't you ever take me in on your Party ticket for a meal? 
Ashamed of my rags?" I asked her once. 

"No, it's not that," she answered, "but someone might recognise 
me and write to the committee at home." 

"And in Magnitogorsk, won't they recognise you there?" 

"That's different. At home it's always easier. They might not 
allow you to go in, but as long as I had asked permission first they'd 
never punish me." 

Five days later Fatima left for Magnitogorsk. From the window 
of her compartment she shouted loudly at me: "Don't forget, 
Leninskaya Street!" 

The next morning my group of Poles met, and welcomed with 
almost religious awe, the first Polish officer that we had seen in 
Russia, who was travelling from his detachment to collect his family 
from Archangel. He told us that the nearest office of the Polish 
Army was in Chelyabinsk, and the latest division of the Army was 
being formed in Kazakhstan. 

* * * * * 

In Chelyabinsk our small company,* led by the energetic 

* In Chelyabinsk I met three of my friends from the camp, M., T. and B., 
who had been released soon after me. Despite our enquiries, we never 
discovered what had happened to L. and Miss Z. 


Lieutenant C., found the smart "Ural" hotel near a tractor factory, 
and in the hotel the chief of the Polish Army office, a tall captain in 
battle-dress with a swagger-stick. He received us without any 
particular sign of enthusiasm, scarcely listened to our chaotic 
stories, and opened a window, even though February is not usually 
accounted to be one of the warmest months in the Urals. He gave 
us ten roubles each and assured us that, if the Russian authorities 
did not object, he would put us through an improvised medical 
examination (luckily there was a doctor among us), and that he 
would try to arrange for a separate railway carriage and travel 
documents which would get us to Kazakhstan. As we said good- 
bye, the captain gave Lieutenant C. several small crosses with the 
legend "Pledge for Victory" in English and some copies of the 
litany to the Miraculous Virgin of Ostrobrama printed on vellum 
paper. "Please give these out to your men," he said, pushing us out 
through the door, "they must have forgotten about God in those 
camps." Secure in the thought that we were at last "men", human 
beings, even though we had indeed forgotten about God in the 
camps, we made our way towards the station, where, we had been 
told immediately after our arrival, it was possible to steal food from 
the stores. 

My diary breaks off at this point evidently I was too busy and 
excited at the prospect of joining the Army and instead of careful 
notes and observations it contains only a detailed itinerary of our 
route : Chelyabinsk-Orsk-Orenburg-Aktubinsk-Aralsk-Kyzyl-Orda- 
Arys-Chymkent-Dzambul-Lugovoye. In the first days of February 
we left Chelyabinsk in a goods truck which had been provided 
with two tiers of wooden bunks, two buckets, a sack of flour 
and one of barley, and two holes in the floor for our most 
immediate needs. On March 9th we were already in Lugovoye. I 
remember almost nothing of this journey, for we seldom left the 
truck, which at every large station was coupled to a different train, 
for fear that we should not be able to find it again. We spent that 
month on our bunks, sleeping and eating, sometimes finding a 
distraction in hunting for lice in the folds of our clothes. But in 
Orsk, where our truck had to wait several hours, I remember seeing 
a magnificent sunset over the snowy steppe a sky changing from 
dark blue to rusty red, and brown camels carrying solitary travellers 
on their rocking humps across the steppe to the station. 

On March 12th, in Lugovoye, I was accepted for the tenth 

IN THE URALS, 1942 241 

regiment of light artillery. The first person that I met in Lugovoye, 
as I walked through the rain to my tent carrying a new battle- 
dress, underwear, a pair of boots and a billy-can, was the thin 
Captain K., whom I used to drag from his bunk to the bucket in the 
Vitebsk prison when he could no longer walk there himself. I 
knocked into him by accident, sliding down a muddy slope on my 
wet boots, and when I saw who it was I opened my arms wide with 
astonishment so that my whole bundle fell into the mud. He looked 
at me fiercely, dusted his beautifully-cut breeches, and threatened 
me with "disciplinary action" the moment I was in uniform. I 
knew then that I was really in the Army, that I was at last among 
my compatriots, who after all that they had gone through during 
the past two years were rapidly returning to normal. 

The tenth division, containing almost entirely those most 
recently released from the camps and therefore the weakest and 
most undernourished prisoners, was the first to be evacuated to 
Persia from Russia. On March 26th my regiment was transported 
on a goods train through Dzambul, Arys, Tashkent, Dzizak, 
Samarkand, Bukhara, Tchardzhau and Ashkhabad, to Krasnovodsk 
on the Caspian Sea; on March 30th we embarked on two ships, the 
Agamali Ogly and the Turkmenistan. The night of April 2nd, 1942, 
I spent on the beach at Pahlevi, beyond the frontiers of that country 
where, as I wrote in my diary at the time, "it is possible to cease to 
believe in man, and in the purpose of the struggle to improve his lot 
on earth." 


"It is hard to imagine how far a man's nature 
may be distorted!" 

DOSTOEVSKY The House of the Dead. 


IN Vitebsk prison I learnt that Paris had fallen from a small dark 
prisoner who was pushed into our cell on a June day in 1940. 

The summer was at its height. Every day we would gaze, in 
silence and with painful stubbornness, at the square of blue sky, 
pale, almost white from the heat, which was framed by our small 
window. Shadows of invisible birds flitted across it and disappeared 
with a cry in the silence of the afternoon which was as thick and 
sticky as honey. Almost immediately after our arrival at Vitebsk, 
in the first days of June, we learnt to look at the sky without a 
word, a sky which every day was clearer, every day hotter. Most of 
the prisoners in the cell were soldiers, scattered refugees from the 
Polish Army, the first to be defeated by Germany in the war. When 
it was cooler, they would sit up on the palliasses after lunch, and 
spend the afternoons spitting on their heavy army boots and 
polishing them, rubbing for hours on their sleeves the metal 
buttons and little silver eagles which they had hidden in their packs, 
and carefully winding cloth puttees round their legs. Their faces 
were covered with a hard bristle, which grew over dirty wrinkled 
skin, their shaved heads were like shapeless lumps of stone, their 
necks covered with carbuncles and boils, their lips cracked and 
swollen, their eyes and legs red, the first from weariness, the others 
from burns. Heavy leaden tears sprang to their eyes whenever the 
sound of horses' hooves metallically treading on the cobbled streets 
reached the cell from some distant horizon of silence. 

The new prisoner laid his bundle on the bucket, looked round 
with distrust and alighted timidly on a palliasse by the door. He 
was like a bird who flies into a cage with much flapping of wings, 
with eyes veiled by a white cataract, and a half-open sharply- 



hooked beak, and grips the wooden perch with determination. 
There was silence in the cell. We had all spent enough time in 
Soviet prisons to know that out of ten newly-arrived prisoners five 
at least were informers who had been sent in from another cell to 
see what they could pick up. The quiet, whispered conversations 
stopped even in remote corners of the cell where the new arrival's 
hearing could not have penetrated. The prisoners' stooping figures 
became tense, their hands clasped their bent knees, their fascinated 
gaze hung on the small face twisted with a grimace of fear. It was 
clear that in order to break the wall of suspicion which surrounded 
him on all sides the unknown man would have to speak first. 

He did not, it is true, look like an informer. In his ungainly 
figure with elongated hands and crooked legs, his face with two 
abnormally large ears sprouting from it like wings and black eyes 
looking anxiously around, I sensed rather a great tragedy, one of 
many which the war then revealed in the lives of those who in 
slavery had seen the best guarantee of freedom for themselves. He 
raised his head from his bundle abruptly, and in a voice movingly 
quiet whispered: "Paris has fallen. . . ." 

One of those sitting by him blew up this flickering whisper into a 
sharp flaming shout : 4 'Paris has fallen !' ' 

The tense figures relaxed, and sighs could be heard from almost 
all bunks. We lay down comfortably with our faces turned towards 
the window and our hands folded behind our heads. We had 
nothing to wait for any longer. Paris had fallen. Paris, Paris. . . . 
It is unbelievable that even the simplest people there, people who 
had never set eyes on France, felt the fall of Paris as the death of 
their last hope, a defeat more irrevocable even than the surrender 
of Warsaw. The night of slavery, which hung over Europe like a 
dark cloud, covered too the small scrap of sky quartered by prison 

I became closely acquainted with the new arrival during the next 
few weeks, for his news had in some ways drawn us together. In the 
evenings he told me the story of his life, so banal in its matter that it 
could serve as an example for text-books of the late war. He was 
born in Grodno, the son of a rich Jewish merchant. After finishing 
his high school in Poland, he left for Paris in 1935 to continue his 


studies. There he became a communist, he even attempted to slip 
into Spain at the time of the Civil War, but the Party ordered him 
to stay where he was and organise a Party cell of foreign students at 
the Paris School of Architecture. He continued to study archi- 
tecture, and in June 1939 received his degree. A month later, just 
before the outbreak of war, he returned to Poland. 

It would be a vain pursuit to attempt an analysis of his com- 
munism. In moments of clarity he made himself understood, and I 
gathered that his faith was a compound of Marx and Le Corbusier, 
in which the economic contradictions of capitalism are solved by the 
planning of an urbanistic Utopia. This sounds naive, even comic, 
but his Jewish idealism, recognising a heavenly kingdom only in this 
world, needed some basis of rationalist- construction, and found it 
in huge dream garden cities, inhabited by the Paris proletariat and 
the scum of Polish ghettoes. 

When the Soviet Army marched into Grodno, in September 1939, 
he was appointed building adviser to the Town Council, and filled 
that post until May 1940, when he was imprisoned for refusing to 
a^ree to a voluntary exile in the depths of Russia. The fall of Paris 
was a personal defeat for him: it was not only the final seal of 
conquest over the whole Continent, but also the capture of the city 
in which his Utopia was conceived, by a state allied to the father- 
land of his Utopia. 

He soon became popular in the cell, for in the evenings he talked 
vividly and convincingly of life in pre-war Paris. But besides the 
tragedy of a betrayed idealist he was undergoing another drama, 
perhaps even more difficult to bear and more painful: an inward 
conflict of loyalties. In his heart he thought of himself as a Pole. 
But when, on the evening after his arrival in the cell, the block 
sergeant asked him formally what his nationality was, he replied 
quietly, looking down at the ground : "Jewish." 

In June 1945 I almost bumped into him in Rome, as I was 
walking at midday out of the editorial offices of the army paper on 
which I was then working. 

"I'd heard that you were working here," he said shyly, "and I 
came from Florence to see you. . . ." 


"But you, how did you get to Italy?" 

"Oh, that's a longish story," he answered with a smile, "let's go 
and have coffee somewhere." 

At that time of day it is difficult to sit for any length of time in the 
hot cafes and taverns of Rome, so we decided to talk in my hotel. 
Rome was then slowly returning to life. Horses' hooves made a 
hollow sound on the scorching paving-stones, and a sad, ragged 
crowd trickled over the bridges and stopped half-way across, look- 
ing down at the dirty waves of the Tiber. In the distance, over it all, 
the Castello Angelo rose like a winged rock. 

He could not wait and started talking in the street. He had been 
taken from the cell in Vitebsk a month after me, and sent to the 
Pechora camp with a ten-year sentence. He was first put to heavy 
work in the forest, and then to floating wood down the river. 
When the Russo-German war broke out be was near the end. The 
amnesty for Poles passed him by because at his first prison roll-call 
he had answered "Jewish" when asked to give his nationality. The 
Russians put their own interpretation on the Polish-Russian agree- 
ment; they considered Polish citizens to be only those of Polish 
racial origin, retaining in the camps all Ukrainians, White Russians 
and Jews from east of the Curzon Line, who had before the war 
been Polish citizens, and towards the end of 1941 even Jews from 
Central and Western, i.e. German-occupied, Poland. It could 
almost be said that the Russians treated the Jews as their own 
property, and it must be admitted that they had some reason for 
this attitude in Hitler's continental empire, between the years 
1941 and 1943, the fate of the Jews was indeed tragically connected 
with the existence of Russia. 

He was saved from dying of exhaustion by the fact that in 
January 1942 the camp authorities remembered his high technical 
qualifications, and made him a foreman in the building brigade. 
Transferred to the technical barrack, he returned to health com- 
paratively quickly. In January 1944 he was suddenly released before 
time, and immediately conscripted into the Red Army. Almost 
without any military training, he found himself, in the spring of that 
year, in the army marching on Hungary. He was wounded in 
battle near Budapest. Straight from the hospital he was transferred 
to the Polish units then being formed by the communist Com- 
mittee of National Liberation in Moscow, and with them he reached 
Warsaw. He obtained his discharge from the army at the first 


opportunity, and illegally fled to Italy. The Jewish organisation, 
Joint, gave him a room in their house in Florence, where he was 
waiting for a visa to South America. 

In the requisitioned hotel on the corner of Tritone and Corso 
Umberto I ordered a bottle of iced wine and took him up to my 
room on the third floor. It was hot and stuffy, through the drawn 
blinds flattened rays of light broke into the room, and we could hear 
the shouting of drunken soldiers and the squeals of street girls in 
other rooms. A lazy crowd moved along the streets. The heat was 
approaching its daily zenith. We sat down together on the bed. I 
looked vacantly at the patterns on the wallpaper, not knowing 
where to begin. For I felt instinctively that he had not told me 

"In the whole story," he began carefully, "there is one thing that 
I have not mentioned, and which I would still like to tell you. I 
haven't talked about it with anybody because, to tell you the truth, 
there has been nobody to talk to. When I got back to Poland I 
found no one alive; my whole family, all near and distant relatives, 
were dead. But through so many sleepless nights I have longed to 
meet someone who could understand me, who had also known a 
Soviet prison camp. . . . I'm not asking you for anything. I have 
changed my name since the war, and in a few months' time, a year 
at most, I shall start a new life in America. But before that happens, 
I would like you to listen, and when you have heard me out, to say 
just one word, say only: 'I understand'. . . ." 

I refilled our glasses. "You can speak freely. After all, we were 
in the same prison cell, and after this war that is almost like having 
been to school together. . . ." 

"It wasn't so easy, then, to maintain myself in the position of 
foreman with the building brigade. In Russia, as you know, you 
have to pay for everything. In February 1942, barely a month after 
I had left general work for the technical barrack, I was summoned 
at night to the Third Section. It was a period when the Russians 
were retaliating for their defeats at the front even in the camps. I 
had four Germans in my brigade, two completely russified, from 
the Volga settlements, and two communists who had fled to Russia 
in 1935. They worked well, and I had nothing against them except 
possibly the fact that they avoided any discussion of politics like 
the plague. Well, the Third Section told me to sign a deposition, 
testifying that I had heard them talking in German of the speedy 


coming of Hitler. My God, surely one of the greatest nightmares of 
the whole Soviet system is that mania for liquidating their victims 
with all legal formalities. . . . It isn't enough to put a bullet through 
someone's head, no, he must himself politely ask for it at the trial. 
Not enough to involve someone in a grim fiction, but they must 
have witnesses to prove it. The N.K.V.D. did not conceal from me 
that I would be sent back to the forest if I refused. ... I had to 
choose between my own death and that of those four. . . ." 

He poured himself out some more wine and with a trembling 
hand lifted the glass to his lips. From under my lowered eyelids I 
saw his perspiring, frightened face. 

"I chose. I had had enough of the forest, and of that terrible 
daily struggle with death I wanted to live. I testified. Two days 
later they were shot beyond the zone." 

We were both silent. He placed his empty glass on the table and 
curled up on the bed, as if expecting a blow. On the other side of 
the wall a woman's shrill soprano crowed a phrase of an Italian 
song and stopped suddenly, cut short by a curse. It had become a 
. little cooler, but I could almost hear the heated car tyres tearing 
themselves away from the sticky asphalt with a slight crackle. 

"If I told that story to any of the people among whom I 
am now living, they would either not believe me or, if they 
believed, would refuse to shake my hand. But you must know to 
what they drove us, how low they brought us there. Say only that 
you understand. . . ." 

I felt the blood rushing to my head. Images and memories 
crowded before my eyes. At that time, three years after I had left 
Russia, when I was forcing the camp from my mind in order to 
preserve faith in human dignity, these images were blurred and in- 
distinct, though now when I have finally obtained some peace, I look 
at them with detachment and they are clear but quite remote. I 
might have been able to pronounce the word that was asked of me, 
on the day after my release from the camp. I might have done . . . 
In 1945 1 already had three years of freedom behind me, three years 
of military wandering and battles, of normal feelings, love, friend- 
ship and sympathy. . . . The days of our life are not like the days 
of our death, and the laws of our life are not the laws of our death. 
I had come back among people, with human standards and con- 
ceptions, and was I now to escape from them, abandon them, 
voluntarily betray them? The choice was the same: then it had 


been his life or the lives of the four Germans, now it was his peace 
or mine. No, I could not say it. 

"Well?" he asked quietly. 

I got up from the bed and without looking him in the eyes 
walked over to the window. With my back to the room I heard him 
going out and gently closing the door. I pushed the blind up. On 
the Piazza Colonna a cool breath of afternoon air had straightened 
the passers-by, as it would a field of corn bowed to the ground by 
drought. Drunk American and English soldiers walked along the 
pavements, pushing the Italians aside, picking up girls, looking for 
shade under the striped awnings of shops. Under the pillars of the 
corner house the black market was in full swing. The Roman 
"lazzaroni", small ragged war-children, dived in and out between 
the legs of enormous negroes in American uniforms. The war had 
ended a month ago. Rome was free, Brussels was free, Oslo was 
free, Paris was free. Paris, Paris, Paris. . . . 

I watched him as he walked out of the hotel, tripped across the 
road like a bird with a broken wing, and disappeared in the crowd 
without looking back. 

June 1949-Jime 1950. 



THE circumstances of Gorki's death have never been cleared up. 
During the Moscow Trials of 1936-7 the State Prosecutor mentioned 
in an aside the fact that besides Kirov, Kuibyshev and Gorki had 
also fallen victims to the "Trotsky-Zinoviev conspiracy", though 
he did not go into details about the method in which the great 
writer was murdered. Only during the last Moscow trials of 1938 
three Kremlin doctors, Levin, Pletnyev and Kasakov, confessed 
that at the command of Yagoda (who was allegedly acting at the 
instigation of Bukharin and Rykov) they murdered, among others, 
Gorki. Brigadier Fitzroy Maclean, in his book, Eastern Approaches, 
reports their admission that "Maxim Gorki had deliberately been 
sat by them in a draught and had caught pneumonia." Both Levin 
and Kasakov received death sentences. Isaac Deutscher, in his book 
on Stalin, mentions, however, a book published in 1940 by Stalin's 
private secretary, Poskrebyshev, in which Gorki's death is described 
as natural. 

While writing the chapter entitled "A Game of Chess", I was 
struck by the resemblance between the conviction of Dr. Levin for 
the assassination of Gorki and the nickname "Gorkist" which was 
given to Dr. Loevenstein in the camp because he had neglected 
Gorki during his last illness. The similarity of the names made me 
suspect either that, after so many years, I had unintentionally 
changed Levin into Loevenstein, or that Levin, though sentenced to 
death, had been sent to the camp with a new name. Excited by the 
probable discovery that not all the verdicts of the Moscow Trials 
were carried out, I wrote to Brigadier Maclean, who was an eye- 
witness of Levin's trial, giving him a description of Loevenstein 
("a man of about fifty-five, short, stoutish, with a small belly, a 
pleasant and intelligent face with slightly protruding eyes, gold 
spectacles and locks of greying hair"). Brigadier Maclean replied: 
"As far as I can remember, your description of your fellow- 
prisoner generally corresponds to my recollection of Dr. Levin. In 
fact it looks very much as if it might have been the same man." 

Further confirmation of what would be a most interesting 



discovery is provided by a letter from Kazimierz Chmielowski, a 
former Soviet prisoner now living in Italy, which contains the 
following description of a meeting in prison: 

"I wish to describe an occurrence which I witnessed in the 
Lukyanovka prison in Kiev. I was in the 'special penal block', in 
cell 18 on the second floor. In March or April 1941, as we were on 
our way to exercise, we stopped for a moment in the corridor. One 
of the prisoners, a Jew who had once been a chief of the N.K, V.D. 
in Odessa (his Christian name was Boris, his surname I cannot 
remember), taking advantage of our guard's momentary absence, 
looked into one of the cells through the judas, and his face changed 
as if he had seen something incredible inside. He whispered some- 
thing to another prisoner, Colonel Nicolai Borodin, who also 
looked into the cell; the effect on him of what he saw was the same. 
As we moved off again, I lifted the judas curiously, and caught a 
brief glimpse of a half-naked man (like a terribly emaciated Gandhi) 
sitting on the floor by a low table with a typewriter and some papers 
on it. The behaviour of the other two prisoners after they had 
looked into the solitary skeleton's cell and after our return to our 
common cell No. 18, decided me, after a few days, to ask Colonel 
Borodin, whom I knew slightly better than the other (I had spent 
sixteen months in cell 18 by then), why Boris had been so frightened 
by what he had seen. Borodin was confused by my question and 
did not answer. But later on the same day Boris came up to me 
and asked me whether I had seen the prisoner in the solitary cell, and 
whether I had told anyone about it. I answered that I had seen the 
prisoner, and that I had told no one. Boris then told me that if I 
should mention it to anybody, the N.K. V.D. would promptly 
liquidate me, him and Colonel Borodin, for the solitary prisoner 
was a personal friend of Tukhachevsky, a former general and 
lecturer at the Army Academy in Moscow, who had been sentenced 
to death with Tukhachevsky; after the trial, the Press had printed 
official confirmations that the sentence had been carried out. It 
turned out that Boris had known him personally and that he (Boris) 
had been a witness in the Tukhachevsky trial; Colonel Borodin had 
also known the general. I promised to say nothing, and from that 
time Boris and Borodin watched me closely, but at the same time 
doing me various favours. 

"Several days after the outbreak of the Russo-German war the 
prison was evacuated. The occupants of our cell were moved to the 


ground floor. After a month the prisoners still remaining, about 
2,000 Russians, Poles, Lithuanians, Czechs, Germans and Jews, 
were led out into the large courtyard between the main block and 
the 'special' block. There the officers began to check the numbers 
and compare them with their documents. After three days of 
muddled counting, checking and rechecking, we were surrounded 
by an escort and marched off. After three weeks' march we reached 
the railway station at Preluka, about 200 miles from Kiev, where 
we were loaded on to a goods train, A few weeks later what was 
left of the 2,000 was unloaded at Tomsk in Siberia. During the 
journey, in August, I met the general from the solitary cell, whose 
name unfortunately I have forgotten. I talked to him several times, 
and listened to his conversations with other prisoners. He was a 
living encyclopedia, and I could not understand how, after all that 
he had suffered, this walking skeleton could quote from memory 
whole chapters of General Sikorski's book about the year 1920. I 
remember the general's answers to three of my questions: 

"1 . Who will win the war? Russia. Particularly now, when it is 
certain that England and America will help her. Russia was waiting 
until the capitalist world should exhaust itself in the war with 
Germany, but the Germans, by their action, have frustrated these 

"2. Will there be a Poland after this war? Yes, but it wiU be a 
communist Poland. 

"3. Why did the Russians, when they occupied Eastern Poland, 
send the population into exile, imprison iimocent people, separate 
families, and so on? Most of those N.K.V.D. men should be in 
prison themselves. If the Germans did not employ even more cruel 
methods, they could gain a great number of allies for themselves. 

"When asked why he had not been shot after his death sentence, 
despite the official announcements in the press, he answered that 
he was necessary to the Government, and that several times in 
Kiev he had been summoned from his cell to talk to high Soviet 
dignitaries. He added that his present circumstances and the events 
of the last few years had not altered his convictions, that he had 
remained a communist, and that soon the whole world would be 



Alexei Stakhanov, originator of the Soviet Stakhanov Movement, 
published the following letter in Tribune of July 23rd, 1948: 

"A few days ago I attended a lecture on international affairs. 
Among other things, the lecturer referred to slanderous articles 
appearing in some British newspapers and magazines, in which it is 
asserted that we have 'forced labour' in our country. I decided to 
make a closer study of the writings in question and found out that 
particularly active in this respect are two traitors to our country a 
certain Dallin and a Nikolayevsky. It seems that they have 
published a disgusting book piled high with all sorts of monstrous 
fabrications about the Soviet Union. And what seems particularly 
strange is that their 'treatise' has been much commented on in the 
Labour Press, which has gone out of its way to advertise the 
slanderous book. 

"You can hardly imagine what indignation and disgust such vile 
and utterly false tales about our country arouse in a man like 
myself, who has devoted and is devoting all his efforts to serve his 

"You love your people and your country. I am a patriot of my 
Socialist motherland. And I, like every Soviet citizen, have every 
reason to be proud of my country, in which the workers and 
peasants have for the first time in history become the real masters. 

"My life does not differ much from that of thousands of other 
Soviet workers. If I have become known as the initiator of a wide- 
spread movement for higher productivity, it is only because all the 
conditions and opportunities are provided in our country for free, 
creative work. That is why I feel that I cannot pass over in silence 
the lies spread by the Dallins and similar renegades. 

"Thirteen years ago I, Alexei Stakhanov, a common Donetz 
miner, pondered over how to make work in the colliery more 
efficient and thus help my country sooner to carry out the second 
Five-Year Plan. Millions of other workers in the Soviet Union, 
who created and carried out the Five-Year Plans, had the same idea 
and we were fired by the same ambition. I devised methods of 


work which made it possible to save not only minutes, but even 
seconds. I said to myself: 'You must try hard, Alexei, because 
there's no one to spur you on you, too, are your country's 
master.' My output kept increasing, and on August 31st, 1935, 1 
established a record: I produced fourteen times as much coal as I 
was supposed to produce. In those days that was a big event. 
Today thousands of miners in the Soviet Union are producing 
much more than I produced thirteen years ago. 

"The Soviet people have done me the great honour to call the 
movement for higher efficiency the 'Stakhanov' movement. Now I 
ask you, can people be coerced to work so highly efficiently as 
millions of 'Stakhanovites' do in the Soviet Union? I am sure you 
will agree that this is impossible. Only Soviet workers can achieve 
such results, because they are profoundly aware of what their work 
means, of its usefulness for their country. 

"We Soviet workers know that the fruits of our labour belong 
entirely to the people, that they are not appropriated by a handful of 
exploiters. By the way, thousands of our foreign friends, among 
them people from Britain, who have visited the Soviet Union and 
have seen our work, can confirm this. 

, "In the Soviet Union, honest and efficient labour enjoys great 
honour and esteem. You must know that advanced workers in our 
country receive the title Hero of Socialist Labour, the newspapers 
write about them, and songs are made about them. I ask you, 
honestly, could forced labour, work under coercion, be so exalted? 

"Every Soviet worker is interested in higher efficiency. By 
producing more he incessantly improves his own well-being and 
raises his standard of living. He is not spurred on by anyone. He is 
himself eager to work better and produce more. 

"There is one more thing I should like to draw your attention to: 
I think that the slanderers who are trying to revive the old tales 
about forced labour in the U.S.S.R., and to create the impression 
that it is by such labour that our new Five- Year Plan is being 
accomplished, may do their peoples, including yours, a poor 
service. They are deceiving you, attempting to picture the Soviet 
Union as a weak country. Before the Second World War, as you 
know, the same slanderers shouted from all the house-tops that the 
U.S.S.R. would collapse at the first impact of enemy armies. But it 
turned out the other way round. The Soviet Union not only drove 
the Fascist invaders from its own territory, but liberated many 


countries of Europe from the Fascist yoke. As a matter of fact, it 
helped your country, too, enabling her to muster her forces and 
deliver the finishing blows to the enemy who had already been 
defeated by us. Why, then, do your newspapers offer all sorts of 
adventurers the opportunity again to picture the Soviet Union as a 
poorly knit State, where everything, allegedly, is based on forced 
labour? Who, save the enemies of your people and ours, can gain 
from this? 

"My friends, miners whom I often meet (although I am now doing 
responsible work in the Ministry), and I, deeply resent the lies 
printed in your Press about the Soviet Union, particularly the 
revival of the old slander about forced labour in our country." 

The author of this book replied as follows in Tribune of August 
6th, 1948: 

"May I point out that Mr. Alexei Stakhanov's 'protest', published 
in your issue of July 23rd, would surely cause great indignation and 
stupor among the many millions of forced-labour slaves in Russia, 
were they able to read it? 

"It is quite obvious that, in Alexei Stakhanov's opinion, Dallin 
and Nikolayevsky are 'traitors' and 'renegades'. I didn't expect 
anything else. But perhaps, after having written a 'protest' to a 
Socialist weekly, Mr. Stakhanov would like to know what a 
Socialist, who has been a forced-labour slave in Russia for one and a 
half years, has to say on the question? 

"While reading Mr. Stakhanov's letter, I recalled an old saying 
of Communists imprisoned in Soviet forced-labour camps. 'If 
Stalin, knew what is happening here' they used to say 'he would 
put into prison all these N.K.V.D. scoundrels instead of us.' It is 
always this same fairy tale: the good Tsar, who knows nothing 
about the sufferings of his devoted people, but will one day appear 
as the Supreme Judge and the Personification of Mercy to punish 
the sinners and bless the meek. 

"In the same way, Mr. Stakhanov seems not to know about Soviet 
forced-labour camps, and from his high-placed and responsible 
post in the Ministry in Moscow he condemns all this story as a 
typical 'old slander'. To explain this mystery, we must remember 
that Mr. Stakhanov is probably employed in the Ministry of 
Industries, and thus has to do only with workers who work, more or 


less, of their own free will. But the recruiting of the forced-labour 
slaves in Russia is not the job of the Ministry of Industries (nor is it 
the job of the Ministry of Labour, which ceased to exist in Russia 
some time ago). It is the task of the N.K.V.D. hunters and N.K.V.D. 
prisons. The H.Q. of the Labour Camps, working under the 
direction and control of the N.K.V.D., is the real recruiting 
organisation of forced labour in the U.S.S.R. ; the N.K.V.D.'s well- 
planned enslavement programme helps to carry out the Russian 
Five-Year Plans. 

"I spent eighteen months, between 1940-42, in the Kargopol 
forced-labour camp near Archangel, on the White Sea. The camp, 
as all such camps, was called Ispravitelnyi Trudovoi Lager, which 
means 'Corrective Labour Camp'. The people to be 'corrected' 
were, except for a few notorious criminals, decent and good citizens, 
sentenced to five, eight or ten years' imprisonment as 'Trots- 
kyites', 'nationalists', 'kulaks', or 'spies'. Most of them knew quite 
well that their imprisonment was a mere pretext to force them into 
hard and unpaid labour under the most primitive conditions. 

"The camp was established in 1937 in the heart of the Archangel 
forest as a part of a timber industry plan. The first prisoners 
had to build their barracks and clear the camp area, working in 
temperatures of 30-40 below zero. Their daily ration was 
two portions of soup and one pound of black bread. The few 
survivors of those times told me in 1940 that among the 'pioneers' 
there were a fairly large number of fully qualified forest engineers, 
who in their past life had not even heard about politics and 'counter- 
revolutionary deviations'. 

" 'I ask you, honestly, 9 writes Mr. Stakhanov, 'could forced 
labour, work under coercion, be so exalted?' An honest question 
deserves an equally honest answer. I, personally, working as un- 
loader at the food base in the Kargopol forced-labour camp, worked 
at about 150170 per cent of the average (which was twenty-five 
tons of flour per man daily), and my name was even put on the 'red 
board* as a 'recordist of Kargopol Stakhanov Movement'. Could 
work be so efficient under coercion? would ask Mr. Stakhanov. 
Yes, when one, being hungry, is promised an additional half-pound 
of bread per day, one can work very efficiently indeed. All I 
wanted, then, was to survive. 

"The Stakhanovites of forced-labour camps in Soviet Russia do 
not receive 'the titles of Heroes of Socialist Labour'; the newspapers 


never mention them, and songs are not 'made about them'. But they 
compose songs about themselves. I remember one of them. It 
begins with an ironic invocation to join the Soviet Stakhanov 
Movement, and ends sadly with a refrain that 'You won't be even 
taken to the hospital, because all the hospitals are full'. This is 
almost true. In the Kargopol camp there was a small hospital with 
several beds, and a much larger barracks for completely emaciated 
workers, which was a kind of ossuary before going to the burial 

The following letter, from A. Trainin, D.Sc., Honoured Worker 
of Science, Corresponding Member of the Academy of Sciences of 
the U.S.S.R., Vice-President of the International Association 
of Democratic Lawyers, appeared in the Manchester Guardian 
of August 29th, 1949: 


"There has of late been some very sharp criticism in the House of 
Commons and the British press on the system of corrective labour 
in the U.S.S.R. On July 23rd your paper also published material 
alleging that the Corrective-Labour Code contains legal provisions 
for a definite system of recruiting labour, organisation and 
utilisation of compulsory labour. I should like, with your per- 
mission, to briefly acquaint your readers as to how I, a Soviet 
citizen and lawyer, regard this criticism. 

"First of all, in the interests of truth let me note the following: 
The Corrective-Labour Code regulates the regime and conditions 
of people convicted for crime and therefore has not and cannot have 
anything in common with the labour conditions of any other 

Then there is this yet that has to be noted. Owing to ignorance of 
the facts I should be sorry to draw worse conclusions the British 
critics have totally ignored the regulations of the Criminal Code of 
the R.S.F.S.R., organically bound with the Corrective-Labour 
Code. If these critics had but taken the least trouble and acquainted 
themselves with the fundamentals of the Criminal Code they would 
have easily avoided the profound and harmful confusion in their 


understanding of the three main types of punishment as applied in 
the U.S.S.R. (1) corrective labour, (2) imprisonment and (3) 
corrective-labour camps. 

"As is clearly and directly indicated in the law, corrective labour 
in the Soviet Union is one of the mildest punishments for a criminal 
offence. This labour ranges over a term of from one day to one 
year and does not include imprisonment (Art. 30 of the Criminal 
Code of the R.S.F.S.R.); apart from the name 'corrective labour' 
there is nothing in the regime that has anything in common with 
imprisonment or confinement in a corrective-labour camp. Finally 
persons who have even been sentenced to a term of imprisonment 
by no means always serve the sentence in the corrective-labour 
camps. On the contrary, as directly prescribed by the law, 'im- 
prisonment for a term of up to three years is served in general places 
of confinement. Sentences of from three to more years are served in 
the corrective-labour camps' (Art. 28 of the Criminal Code of the 
R.S.F.S.R.). This shows that only persons serving sentences 
of more than three years for grave offences are maintained in 

"In West Europe and America the dominating system of punish- 
ment is still imprisonment solitary confinement, general, mixed 
imprisonment, and so forth. An attempt was even made to create a 
special science of 'prisonology'. 

"Soviet law has decidedly discarded this prison cult. In the 
U.S.S.R. the entire penitentiary system revolves on labour. Labour 
is a necessary element in the camp corrective system. Naturally, a 
term in the corrective-labour camp means deprivation of freedom. 
But this loss of freedom is not the kind practised in West Europe 
and the U.S.A. There the prison is a place of seclusion, a place for 
complete isolation from the outside world, and very often from 
other prisoners. Offenders confined in corrective-labour camps in 
the U.S.S.R. are engaged in useful labour, and are free to mingle 
with one another, free to move about the territory of the camp. In 
the corrective-labour camps work is compulsory only in so far as the 
re-education and correction of the offender is compulsory. Labour 
of the convicted person is regimented. Here are some regulations 
from the Corrective-Labour Code: 

" The labour of prisoners must be so organised as to promote 
the preservation and improvement of their qualifications and 


the acquirement of one by those who have none' (Art. 70). 
'Work is allotted with due regard for the health of prisoners as 
established by the doctor' (Art. 73). 'Labour conditions of 
prisoners are regulated by the general rules of the Labour Code 
of the R.S.F.S.R. concerning the work day, rest, women's 
labour, labour of minors, and labour protection. Exceptions 
to the rule are established by the People's Commissariat of 
Justice in agreement with the All Union Central Council of 
Trade Unions' (Art. 74). 

"Confinement in a corrective-labour camp is, of course, a 
punishment and very severe one at that, but not as tormenting as 
confinement in a prison cell as is practised in the West European 
countries, where people are 'buried alive'. Confinement in a 
corrective-labour camp as a means of punishment is necessarily 
connected with the application of a compulsory, obligatory regime 
for the prisoners. But does punishment in any part of the world 
exist without elements of compulsion? Or maybe British prisons 
are built up on the principle of rest homes and flogging of prisoners 
is a hygienic measure? Or maybe compulsory sterilisation of 
25,000 people in the U.S.A. by January 1st, 1947, as against the 
1,116 of Nazi Germany in the course of three years (1933-1936), is 
an example of humanity? 

"If this be the case then why the noise, why the organised 
excitement around the corrective-labour camps? The following fact 
shows that we must be extremely wary in supplying the answer 
to the question. 

"The Corrective-Labour Code in the U.S.S.R. was issued in 
1933. In 1936 that is, three years later it was translated into 
English. Thirteen to sixteen years have since passed and naturally 
every impartial observer will want to know: Why have the British 
authorities and the British organs of the press maintained silence on 
the question of the Corrective-Labour Code for sixteen years and 
now suddenly become so keenly interested in it? What has changed? 
The one thing that has chafiged, and this must be plainly stated, is 
the international situation, which of late has really become very 
aggravated and which, unfortunately, certain influential circles are 
striving with all possible haste to aggravate still further. The fact 
that the present time has been chosen for the fierce attacks against 
one of the codes of laws passed in the U.S.S.R. is causing grave 


anxiety among all loyal friends of the peace, regardless of what 
nation or class they belong to, anxiety in the sense is not this 
campaign on the question of the Corrective-Labour Code an 
ideological development of the North Atlantic and other similar 
pacts, and is it not an attempt to work up an aggressive spirit against 
the U.S.S.R. under the guise of concern for the welfare of people 
who have been subjected to a regime of corrective labour? Does 
not this mask of fighters for humanism hide the organisers of crimes 
against mankind, the instigators of a new war? 

"Genuine humanism prompts the movement for peace and 
democracy; and in these times of tension there can be no more 
humane task than the struggle against all attempts to sow discord 
among the States and to undermine the cause of peace, equally dear 
to both the Soviet peoples and the people of Britain." 

The author replied, in the Manchester Guardian of September 
3rd, 1949: 


"Will you allow me to give a slightly more detailed answer to Dr. 
Trainin, whose letter on 'Russian "Forced Labour" ' appeared 
in your issue of August 29th? 

"I am not myself an Honoured Worker of Science, but I think 
that my qualifications to speak on this subject are better than those 
of Dr. Trainin as, between the years 1940 and 1942, 1 was a very 
unhonoured worker in the forced-labour camp at Kargopol, near 
Archangel. I am, therefore, not prepared to discuss scientifically 
with Dr. Trainin the legal aspects of the Soviet Penal Code, which 
none of the Soviet prisoners knows, treats seriously, or cares about, 
since ninety per cent of them are sentenced to forced-labour 
imprisonment without any trial. 

" 'The Corrective-Labour Code,' writes Dr. Trainin, 'regulates 
the conditions of people convicted for crime and therefore has not, 
and cannot have, anything in common with the labour conditions 
of any other people.' What are these crimes of which they are 
convicted? My own personal experience was as follows: I was 
arrested by the N.K.V.D. in the territory of Eastern Poland (then 
ceded to Russia by Germany) while trying to cross the Lithuanian 
frontier in 1940. I agree that the illegal crossing of a frontier is an 
offence, and I remember that, before the war, my fellow-students 


were sentenced to twenty-four hours' imprisonment for accidentally 
going over the border from Poland into Czechoslovakia while 
climbing in the Tatra mountains. But my 'sledovatel', the judge 
who was conducting the preliminary investigations, was of a 
different opinion. 

"He accused me first of being a German spy on the ground that 
the first part of my name, when transcribed into Russian (Gerling), 
made me a supposed relative of a well-known German Field 
Marshal. It took us one whole week of nightly hearings to dispose 
of this argument, and at last the sledovatel agreed that in any case 
Gerling is not the same thing as Goring. His second accusation 
against me was that 'I tried to cross the frontier in order to join the 
Polish Army in France and fight against Soviet Russia.' I do not 
pretend to have played the hero during these hearings, but at that 
one moment I asked the sledovatel to substitute the word 'Germany' 
for 'Soviet Russia'. A blow full in the face, accompanied by the 
encouraging sentence, 'It means the same thing,' made up my mind 
for me, and I signed the accusation form which had been drawn up 
by the judge. I had no trial, no counsel, and no opportunity to 
defend myself before the verdict was given. After the preliminary 
hearings in Grodno prison, which lasted for three whole months, 
I had to wait four months more in Vitebsk prison for my sentence. 
At last I was summoned to the N.K. V.D. office in Vitebsk prison, to 
be told that I had been sentenced, in my absence, to five years in a 
forced-labour camp. 

"Let us even suppose that my case was not typical, since I was a 
Polish citizen searching for an opportunity of fighting against 
Germany during the war and what is more important at the 
time of the Ribbentrop-Molotov friendship pact. But in the 
Kargopol camp I met many people who had been sentenced, also 
without trial by Osoboye Sovestchanye (the Special Court) of the 
N.K. V.D. to terms of eight or ten years, on the sole ground that 
they were kulaks, priests, Germans, Poles, or Marxist-deviationists. 
I think Dr. Trainin has made his voice heard in the West a little too 
late; there can now be no doubt among honest people of the West 
that behind the smoke-screen of a penal code the Soviet forced- 
labour camps are no more than a means of recruiting cheap slave- 
labour in Russia. 

"Dr. Trainin further writes that the Soviet system differs from 
that of Western Europe or the United States, where 6 the prison is a 


place of seclusion, a place for complete isolation from the outside 
world, and very often from other prisoners,' and where prisoners 
are 'buried alive', and that 'Soviet law has decidedly discarded this 
prison cult' of solitary confinement, basing it instead entirely on 
labour. In reality, the substitution of forced labour for solitary 
confinement has given rise to an entirely new and distinct prison 
cult in Soviet Russia. A prisoner in a forced-labour camp works 
twelve hours a day in a temperature of thirty to forty degrees 
centigrade below zero, receives two plates of watery soup and a little 
over a pound of bread daily (an amount not sufficient even for a 
prisoner in a 'place of seclusion'), and has a day off once a month, or 
even once in two months, according to how the industrial plan on 
which the camp is engaged is being fulfilled. 

"Under these conditions, of what use is it to him to be 'engaged in 
useful labour', or to be 'free to mingle with one another, free to 
move about the territory of the camp'? After three years of this 
work, prisoners are sent to the special barrack for workers who are 
too weak to be any longer useful as labourers; this barrack was 
known in the camp as 'the mortuary', and there the prisoners are 
allowed the privilege of dying in peace without being called out to 
work any more. It is in Russian camps that the better-educated 
prisoners think of themselves as being 'buried alive', repeating 
the well-known phrase from Dostoevsky's House of the Dead. 
Dr. Trainin quotes the Corrective-Labour Code, which rules that 
'the labour of prisoners must be so organised as to promote the 
preservation and improvement of their qualifications'. After 
having read it now (for, of course, I never saw it in Soviet Russia), I 
may ask whether, as a literary critic, I should not have been 
employed in the camp library. But I remember that the position of 
librarian was reserved for common criminals, who were judged 
to be more trustworthy in handing out the Soviet propaganda of 
which the library consisted than political prisoners; and so I had to 
work as a common labourer. 

''During my seven months' imprisonment in the prisons of 
Grodno, Vitebsk, and Leningrad I often longed to be sent at last 
to a labour camp to change the dullness of my life in the cell and to 
regain, while working, my physical fitness. That was nothing but a 
delusion. After my arrival at the Kargopol camp I soon discovered 
that all the forced-labour workers were dreaming of a return to 
prison, where they could live quietly in their cells, and not be 


tortured by hunger, emaciation, and frost. Is it not ironic that 
even in respect of the 'prison cult' Russian people are looking up 
to and dreaming of the Western standard of life, which Dr. Trainin 
so contemptuously condemns?"