Prison and Concentration Camp

A nauseating stench assails us as we enter the compulsory labor camp at Kharkov. The courtyard is filled with men and boys, incredibly emaciated, mere shadows of humans. Their faces yellow and eyes distended, bodies ragged, and barefoot, they forcibly remind me of starving pariahs in famine-stricken India.

“The sewer is being repaired,” the official accompanying us explains. Only a few prisoners are at work; the others stand about apathetically, or sprawl on the ground as if too weak for exertion.

“Our worst scourge is disease,” the guide remarks. “The men are undernourished and lack resistance. We have no medicine and we are short of physicians.”

Some of the prisoners surround our party, apparently taking us for officials. “Tovarishi,” a young man appeals to us, “when will the Commission decide upon my case?”

“Visitors,” the guide informs him laconically.

“We can’t live on the pyock. The bread ration has been cut again. No medicine is given out,” several complain.

The guards motion them aside.

The large male dormitory is appallingly crowded. The whole floor space is taken up by cots and benches, set so closely together it is difficult for us to pass. The prisoners cluster in the corners; some, naked to the hips, are engaged in picking lice off their garments; others sit listlessly, gazing vacantly about them. The air is foul, suffocating.

From the adjoining female ward come quarreling voices. As we enter a girl cries hysterically: “Don’t dare call me a speculator! It’s my last things I was selling.” She is young and still beautiful, her torn blouse exposing delicate, well-formed shoulders. Her eyes burn feverishly, and she breaks into a hacking cough.

“God may know who you be,” a peasant woman retorts. “But just think of me, with three little ones at home.” Catching sight of our group, she rises heavily from the bench, stretching her hand out pleadingly: “Dear ones, let me go home. My poor children will die without me.”

The women beset us. The rations are bad and insufficient, they declare. Only a quarter of a pound of bread is given them and a plate of thin soup once a day. The doctor does not attend the sick; their complaints are ignored, and the prison commission does not pay any attention to their protests.

A keeper appears in the door. “To your places!” he shouts angrily. “Don’t you know the regulations? Send your petitions in writing to the Commission.”

“We’ve done it, but we get no reply,” several women cry.

“Silence!” the overseer commands.

At the gate of the Cold Hill Prison (Kholodnaya Gorka) we meet an excited crowd, mostly women and girls, each with a little bundle in hand. They are wildly gesticulating and arguing with the guards. They have brought provisions and clothing for their arrested relatives⁠—the custom, known as peredatcha, prevailing throughout the country owing to the inability of the government to supply its prisoners with sufficient food. But the guard declines to accept the offerings. “New orders,” he explains: “no more peredatcha.”

“For how long?”

“For several weeks.”

Consternation and resentment break from the people. The prisoners cannot exist without peredatcha. Why should it be refused? Many of the women have come long distances, even from neighboring towns, to bring some bread and potatoes to husband or brother. Others have deprived themselves of necessaries to procure a little delicacy for a sick friend. And now this terrible order!

The crowd besieges us with pleas. We are accompanied by the woman secretary of a high commissar, herself an official of the Rabkrin, the powerful Department of Inspection, organized to investigate and correct abuses in the other Soviet institutions. She is past middle age, lean and severe looking, with the reputation of being efficient, strict, and heartless. I have heard that she was formerly in the Cheka, one of its Commandants, as the executioners are called.

Some of the women recognize our guide. From all sides come appeals to intercede, in tones of fear mixed with hope.

“I don’t know why peredatcha is refused,” she informs them, “but I shall inquire at once.”

We enter the prison, and our guide sends for the commissar in charge. A youngish man, gaunt and consumptive-looking, appears. “We have suspended the peredatcha,” he explains, “because we are short of help. We have more work just now than we can handle.”

“It is a great hardship for the prisoners. Perhaps the matter can be managed,” the Secretary suggests.

“Unfortunately it can’t,” the man retorts coldly. “We work beyond our strength. As for the rations,” he continues, “the honest workers outside are no better off.”

Noticing our look of disapproval, he adds: “As soon as we have caught up on our work, we’ll permit the peredatcha again.”

“How soon might that be?” one of our party inquires.

“In two or three weeks, perhaps.”

“A long time to starve.”

The Commissar does not reply.

“We all work hard without complaining, tovarish,” the guide reproves him severely. “I regret I shall have to report the matter.”

The prison has remained as it was in the days of the Romanovs; even most of the old keepers still hold their positions. But it is much more crowded now; sanitary arrangements are neglected and medical treatment is almost entirely absent. Yet a certain indefinable new spirit is felt in the atmosphere. The commissar and keepers are informally addressed as tovarish, and the prisoners, even the non-politicals, have acquired a freer, more independent manner. But the discipline is severe: the old custom of collective protest is sternly suppressed, and repeatedly the politicals have been driven to the extreme method of self-defense⁠—a hunger strike.

In the corridors the inmates walk about without guards, but our guide frowns down their attempts to approach us by a curt, “Not officials, tovarishi.” She seems not quite at ease, and discourages conversation. Some prisoners trail behind us; occasionally a more daring one appeals to have his case looked into. “Send in your petition in writing,” the woman admonishes him, whereupon there comes the retort, “I did, long ago, but nothing has been done.”

The large cells are crowded, but the doors are open, and the men pass freely in and out. A dark-haired youth, with sharp black eyes, unobservedly joins our party. “I’m in for five years,” he whispers to me. “I’m a Communist, and it was revenge on the part of a crooked commissar whom I threatened to expose.”

Walking through the corridors I recognize Tchernenko, whose description was given me by Kharkov friends. He was arrested by the Cheka to prevent being seated in the Soviet, to which he was elected by his fellow workers in the factory. By the help of a friendly soldier he succeeded in escaping from the concentration camp, but was rearrested and sent to the Cold Hill Prison. I slow down my pace, and Tchernenko, falls into the rear of our party. “More politicals than common criminals here,” he says, pretending to speak to the prisoner at his side. “Anarchists, Left Social Revolutionists, and Mensheviki. Treated worse than the others. Only a few Whites and one American from the Kolchak front. Speculators and counterrevolutionists can buy their way out. Proletarians and revolutionists remain.”

“The revision commission?” I whisper in an aside.

“A fake. They pay no attention to our petitions.”

“What charge against you?”

“None. Neither charge nor trial. The usual sentence⁠—till the end of civil war.”

The guide turns into a long, dark passage, and the prisoners fall back. We enter the women’s department.

Two rows of cells, one above the other, cleaner and lighter than the male part. The doors stand ajar, the inmates free to walk about. One of our party⁠—Emma Goldman⁠—asks permission to see a political whose name she had secured from friends in the city. The guide hesitates, then consents, and presently a young girl appears. She is neat and comely, with an earnest, sad face.

“Our treatment?” she repeats the question addressed to her. “Why, at first they kept us in solitary. They would not let us communicate with our male comrades, and all our protests were ignored. We had to resort to the methods we used under the old regime.”

“Be careful what you say,” the guide admonishes her.

“I’m speaking the truth,” the prisoner retorts unabashed. “We employed obstruction tactics: we smashed everything in our cells and we defied the keepers. They threatened us with violence, and we all declared a hunger strike. On the seventh day they consented to leave our doors open. Now we can breathe the corridor air at least.”

“That is enough,” the guide interrupts.

“If we are deprived of the peredatcha we’ll start a hunger strike again,” the girl declares as she is led away.

In the death house the cell doors are closed and locked. The occupants are invisible, and an oppressive silence is felt in the living tomb. From somewhere a short, hacking cough strikes upon the ear like ominous croaking. Slow, measured steps resound painfully through the narrow corridor. A foreboding of evil hangs in the air. My mind reverts to a similar experience long buried in the recesses of my memory⁠—the “condemned” gallery of the Pittsburg jail rises before me.⁠ ⁠…

The guard accompanying us lifts the lid of the observation “eye” out into the door, and I look into the death-cell. A tall man stands motionless in the corner. His face, framed in a thick black beard, is ashen gray. His eyes are fastened on the circular opening, the expression of terror in them so overwhelming that I involuntarily step back. “Have mercy, tovarish,” his voice comes as from a grave, “oh, let me live!”

“He appropriated Soviet funds,” the woman guide comments unemotionally.

“It was only a small sum,” the man pleads. “I’ll make it good, I swear it. I am young, let me live!”

The guide shuts the opening.

For days his face haunts me. Never had I seen such a look in a human before. Primitive fear stamped upon it in such relief, it communicated itself lingeringly to me. Terror so absolute, it turned the big, powerful man into a single, all-absorbing emotion⁠—the mortal dread of the sudden call to face his executioner.

As I note down these experiences in my Diary, there come to me the words of Zorin. “The death penalty is abolished, our prisons empty,” he had said to me soon after my arrival in Russia. It seemed natural, self-evident. Have not revolutionists always opposed such barbarous methods? Was not much of Bolshevik popularity due to their condemnation of Kerensky for restoring capital punishment at the front, in 1917? My first impressions in Petrograd seemed to bear out Zorin’s statement. Once, strolling along the river Moika, there came to my view the big prison demolished at the outbreak of the Revolution. Hardly a stone was left in place⁠—cells, floors, ceilings, all were a mass of debris, the iron doors and steel window bars a heap of twisted junk. There lay what had once been a dreaded dungeon, now eloquent of the people’s wrath, blindly destructive, yet wise in its instinctive discrimination. Only part of the outer walls of the building remained; inside everything had been utterly wrecked by the fury of age-long suffering and the leveling hand of dynamite. The sight of the destroyed prison seemed an inspiration, a symbol of the coming day of liberty, prisonless, crimeless. And now, in the Cold Hill death house.⁠ ⁠…