They say that if you bring a deep-sea diver too quickly to the surface he may die, or at the very least feel the blood boiling in his veins and everything bursting inside. That is rather how I felt one dark December morning in Vladimir jail.
It was the start of an ordinary prison day, a perfectly normal day in the endless monotonous round of life under lock and hey. At six o’clock, as usual, the prison guard made his way from cell to cell, hammering on the doors with his keys and squawking hoarsely: "Wake! Wake up!" The convicts stirred in the cold gray light of dawn and crawled reluctantly out of their sacks, disentangling themselves from the blankets, pea jackets, and jerkins in which they were wrapped up for the night: GET STUFFED!
The radio loudspeakers blared, booming out the solemn, swelling chords of the national anthem, just as if it were parade time on Red Square. Jesus, somebody forgot to turn them off again last night! "This is Moscow calling! Good morning, comrades. We shall begin our morning exercises with jogging on the spot." For Christ’s sake, turn the damn thing off! Every day in this country begins with "jogging on the spot."
Even a free man experiences a gloomy winter’s morning like a hangover, but here in jail there is nothing more depressing. You haven’t the least desire to live and the day ahead hangs over you like a curse. Not for nothing did the cons used to sing:
You wake at dawn when the town still sleeps,
In the jail, no sleep—the time for that's long gone,
But your poor heart shudders and beats As if scorched by a passing flame.
The “jail buggy”—the cart full of urns in which they brought breakfast to the various blocks—came rumbling across the snowy yard. You could hear the urns being unloaded below and dragged heavily upstairs, their bottoms banging on the floor. Then came the sound of food flaps clicking open and shut, the tinny scrape of basins and mugs. The gruel came runny but hot. And hot water, the con’s faithful companion. People were picking tip a racket, blinding and cursing—short measures, probably. They pounded the door with their basins. Too late. Missed the boat. You had to shove your basin out while the food flap was still open. Breakfast, clanging and rumbling like a medieval battle, passed on down the corridor to the far end. Who was there to check it, who could prove that they had lost out on gruel?
My usual occupation, after breakfast, was to run through the English words I had copied out the previous day. Twice a day I would practice them—in the morning and just before lights out. These were my exercises, rather than jogging on the spot, to stir my sleepy brain. Later in the day, after lunch, I would tackle something harder. I had just settled down on my bunk, tvith my legs tucked under me, when the food flap opened: “Cell number ten! Grab your things and get ready to leave!" That was all we needed. By the time you got ready, dragged all your gear off to another cell and settled in, there went another day of study. Where to this time? Those bastards never tell you a thing—top secret.
“Hey, Chief! Do we need to take our mattress-covers? What about the mattresses? What about our basins?"
This was reconnaissance. Taking mattresses meant we’d be staying in the same block. Leaving them meant a different block. Mattress-covers meant Block One or Three—Block Two issued its own, and basins too.
“Take the lot!’ said the prison officer vaguely, keeping us in the dark.
Where are they taking us? To the box, maybe. Or Block One, to work. Then we’ll have to strike again, and they’ll drag us off to strict-regime cells and put us on punishment rations. But maybe it’s just a frisk? God forbid, that’d be even worse. I’ve got books stashed away all over the cell in case we get searched, and a whole collection of valuables —a penknife, several razor blades, a homemade awl. They’ll clean out the lot in no time.
There was a general commotion. Every one of us had his particular hoard, his treasures.
Quick, put it in your jacket, shove it in among the padding, maybe they won’t find it. Or your boot—oh no, they’ve started X-raying boots lately. For yourself you can’t get an X ray for love or money, but for boots it’s okay. My God, my boots! I’ve handed them in for repair.
“Boss! Ring up and see about my boots, they’re in the repair shop. Boss, I won’t go without my boots!’’ I had worked and struggled for two months to get that repair done, writing complaints, putting in demands. They had finally taken them, and damned if I didn’t need them again. Now I'd be glad to have them back as they were—everything had gone to hell. Thank God we’d had our breakfast— who knew where we’d be by lunchtime?
I seemed to have accumulated stacks of gear—a whole mattress-cover full. You wouldn’t think a man would have much stuff in prison, but you just never noticed how it piled up. Your comrades, let out slowly one by one, went back to the camps, and managed to leave their priceless treasures as a legacy for those left behind. It would be a sin to take things out that had been smuggled in through the searches with so much difficulty. Every knickknack had its value. Take those three foreign razor blades—any single one would clinch a deal with the gruel deliverer to slip some hot food to one of our boys in the box. That meant three weeks’ extra life for somebody—maybe me. Those notebooks were also worth a mint; just try to lay your hands on one. Three ballpoint pens, extra refills, and, above all, the books—God help me if we were searched! I had a dangerous amount of these riches and I never seemed to have a chance of slipping them to somebody who was staying on. I just never got into the same cell with them; I was unlucky.
But basically it looked as if we were simply being transferred to another cell, so we took along our soap and rags and various bits of string. Everything would come in handy in our new cell, especially if it had been occupied by criminal cons before us. They always left the place looking as though it had been ransacked: the cell would be filthy, everything in it battered and broken, and it invariably took a couple of days to clean it up and repair everything, to scrape the walls clean and wash the floors. They usually left no soap and no rags, so we took our floor cloth with us as well.
Whew! It looks as though we’ve got everything together.
“Ready?” yelled the prison officer through the door.
The door opened, and the block officer pointed a finger in my direction. “Come with me,” he said curtly.
Christ. Where was he taking me? It must be the box. Groping helplessly for possible reasons, I asked, “Shall I take my mattress with me?”
“Drop it in the corridor!”
That’s it, the box. But what for? What have I done? Nothing. I’ll go on hunger strike!
We went down the steps to the ground floor and turned away from the exit and along the corridor—the box! No, we passed it and went straight on down the hall. They were going to frisk me> t^le frisking room was straight ahead. Damn it to hell, they’d take everything I'd got. How could I draw them off? I said the first thing that came into my head: “Boss, get me my boots, they’re in the repair shop!”
“They’ve been sent for already.”
Sent for? Why did they send for my boots if I was only going to be frisked? Maybe I was being shipped out?
We went into the frisking room.
Petukhov’s team was already there, waiting for me like jackals. Now they’d pick me dean. “All right, put your sack down here and get undressed.” They made me strip, as per regulations. Then they fingered the seams of every item of clothing. One razor blade was hidden in my jacket—they didn’t find it, thank God—one week’s life for somebody. "Get dressed!” I was led out into the corridor and locked in the departure cell.
I was being shipped out after all! But how the hell was I going to manage all that gear on a prison transport? I hardly had the strength to walk- And now I would lose the lot— every transit prison meant a new search. I was flabbergasted. What’s this? You damn fool, you’ve taken the soap and the floor cloth. And my boots! If they’re swiped, I’ve had it.
"Boss, get me my boots, they’re in the repair shop!”
"They’ve been sent for already.”
I had to let the fellows know, but how? I was in the end cell. There was no one above me, no lavatory pan in the cell, and no mug, blast it! With a pencil stub I wrote on the wall in English: "Shipped out to an unknown destination.” Then my name and the date. But that wasn’t enough. How long would it be before anyone noticed it? I had to try to yell out. Maybe they’d take me to the bathhouse first? But the door was already opening. A bath? No, we headed for the exit. Outside we turned the corner of the building and made for the guardhouse. Quick, now was the time to yell. Cell number fifteen was right above me. Suddenly I let out such a bellow that Major Kiselev, beside me, literally leaped back in fright.
"Nu-u-umber Fif-teen, Yego-o-or, I’m being shipped out! They’re shipping me out, Fifteen!”
At that point the guards recovered their wits and shoved me through the guardhouse door. "Be quiet, what are you yelling for? Want the box?” Don’t give me that one, Chief, where are you going to find a box on a prison transport?
In the guardhouse, we went into a spacious room that was a sort of cross between a recreation room and a changing room for the guards. I was made to sit on a chair. "Sit here!” At this point our political instructor came into the room, Captain Doinikov, looking somewhat ill at ease and with an air of melancholy solemnity. Softly, so that no one else could hear me, I said to him, " Where are they sending me, sir?”
He squirmed and looked away. "I don’t know, no, really I don’t. I don’t know. You’re being shipped out."
"Come off it, stop beating about the bush and making mysteries— Where to?”
"I honestly don’t know, it has nothing to do with me. They said you were being shipped out—to Moscow, most probably.”
He knew everything, the swine, I could tell by his face.
"What about my things?"
"They’re already loaded.”
Well, beat that! And who’s been carrying my gear for me, the armed guards? Oh, my boots. "Tell them to bring my boots, they’re in the repair shop.”
“They’ll bring them."
“What do you mean, they’ll bring them? We’re in the guardhouse, I’m already on my way!”
Then suddenly he said, ever so softly, "You won’t be needing your boots anymore.”
What the hell was this? What did he mean, I wouldn’t be needing my boots anymore? I replied, just as softly, "How do you know I won’t need my boots if you don’t know where I’m going?” He turned red.
I shouldn’t have asked. It was clear enough anyway that something extraordinary was afoot: convicts were never shipped out from the guardhouse; the prison van drove right inside the yard and was loaded there. But they had carried my gear themselves and I didn’t need my boots anymore, so maybe I was getting out, maybe they were letting me go? Or there could be other reasons for not needing any boots.
"Ah well, good-bye,” said the captain.
They led me straight toward the exit, as if letting me go. But I wasn’t allowed to look to the sides—men in civvies were standing about. Ah, the KGB! Of course, they weren’t letting me go at all.
"This way, please, get in."
Right by the gate stood a minibus and a number of cars. The snow was all trampled and dark. Where was the prison van? No, I was being asked to get into the minibus, a miracle! Inside, on the back seat, I found my sack in the prison mattress-cover. The windows were sealed off with blinds and KGB men in plainclothes surrounded me. They warned me not to touch the blinds or try to look out of the windows. Some blinds had also been lowered over the partition between us and the driver, but they weren’t secured at the bottom and fluttered. That meant they would flap when we drove and I would get a chance to see a little bit. We were waiting for some senior officer or other. He got in the front, beside the driver, slammed the door, the blinds fluttered— and we were off. We swung around, turned the corner, and drove away.
Christ, I wonder if the boys heard me? I yelled loudly enough. But where the hell are they taking me? To Moscow? Doinikov said Moscow. But he might have been lying. Where could they be taking me? And why in a minibus instead of a prison van? And why didn’t I need boots? Well, there was every livelihood they might do it. All they had to do was turn into the woods outside the town and— "While attempting to escape . . .’’
The minibus was traveling at breakneck speed. The blinds trembled and flapped, and all of a sudden, to my great astonishment, I caught sight of a police car in front of us with a flashing light on its roof. Inside were two police officers, one with his hand thrust out of the window, holding a thin cane and gesturing at other vehicles to get out of our way. Was this a coincidence? No; five minutes later the blinds jerked again, and again I caught sight of the police car with its flashing light. Glancing furtively over my shoulder, I saw the regular flashing of a light reflected on the blinds behind us. So there was a police car behind as well. Meanwhile, we were speeding along and I began to worry in case we skidded and turned over—after all it was winter and the roads were slippery. At the next bend the blinds flapped again and I saw the police car ahead of us. And the light behind us continued to blink. Only members of the government traveled like this. Certainly I had never been transported in this way before. Where were they talking me?
The goons with me in the minibus were talking among themselves, glancing only rarely in my direction. Only the two sitting on either side of me were on their guard. And no matter how hard I looked at their faces, or at the road ahead through the gap in the blinds, I couldn’t learn anything new. Oh well, if it was to the woods, so be it, and if to Moscow, so be it; there was absolutely nothing I could do. There was no point in thinking about it anymore. Che sera, sera.