Anatoly Altman

Translated from Russian
by Ilana Romanovsky

Part 4. The Trial

Excerpts from an uncompleted book

Before getting acquainted with Case No 24, as part of Case No 15, I had a talk with somebody called Colonel Skorobogaty from Novosibirsk. “You are charged with high treason through an attempt of illegally producing and disseminating of seditious materials, with the intent of undermining and weakening the Soviet power, as well as with participating in organized activity aimed at the security of the USSR”. “What?”, I asked, - “high treason?” And the colonel started again, in a monotone… “Nope”, - I answered. “How do you mean “Nope”, my dude, if this is high treason?” Prosecutor Katukova, who was present when the talk took place, hurried to rescue the colonel: “As a representative of public prosecution I have a duty of informing you that the investigation, on the grounds of evidence that was collected from the accused and the witnesses, has found in your actions criminal offence that can be attested as falling under the following Criminal Code articles…” Then the colonel spoke again, and after that Katukova continued: “The court will grant you an opportunity to give your own account for your actions at the trial, the court will consider your sincerity and will undoubtedly take a just and honest decision. But now the procedure requires that you sign the official indictment paper. At this late hour we are tired, you also have been here since morning, and besides, you are not the only person we have to work with…” A handsome, well-groomed woman, expensive clothes, an adequate vocabulary. I wondered: Marshal Katukov, the Armored Forces commander who gloriously wound Checoslovakia’s freedom around Soviet tanks’ caterpillar tracks, is he related to our State Prosecutor? All of them are hurrying to dinner, to the Party Congress, to report by November 7 on carrying out of the assignments set by the Party and the Government. Without my signing the indictment paper they cannot start reading the case materials – one of them tries to drive it home to me. I sign. They take me to the cell. My head is heavy, I feel drowsy and apathetic – can they be putting something into the water? Maybe not all the time, just for the cases like this… Okay, don’t look for hidden causes, you’ve signed it in full consciousness, you will continue at the trial, at least there somebody will hear you, while here – what’s the point…

The first day of the proceedings is nearing. Reading the case materials makes time run fast. It is only now that I am able to grasp the scope of both the Zionists’ and the KGB’s activity. Even though what they picture in their materials evidently aims at appalling the reader, facts alone reveal that in Leningrad a real organization was put together, something we had never dreamed of doing. In Kishinev, in Kiev, in Moscow lots of people were being nicked, lists of detainees and witnesses were provided. I find a paper from which it follows that Avraham left for Israel in August and for this reason he could not be delivered to the KGB for giving testimony. He escaped like a wolf from a trap. During our trial, in December, Avraham would go on a hunger strike with friends at the Western Wall (it’s a bitter thing to say, but the hunger strike was against the Israeli establishment that was totally indifferent to us…).

The investigator hurries me up. He is especially displeased when I start reading slanderous materials – the works of Shub, Litvinov’s speech, “My Glorious Brothers” by Fast and so on, - materials you had to wait to read in out there you always had to "line up" for them as well. I meet the lawyer who was appointed by the KGB. Then I meet another one, the one my friends hired for me. Then a third one, because the second one also defends Mendelevich, and there are some discrepancies in our evidence.

At last the day of the trial has come. There is a strange commotion in the whole prison. It looks like the KGB loves us today, and if they had a slightest opportunity they would iron our ties for us and wave their handkerchiefs for us – as if saying “break your leg”. The case is ripe, today is the time for the proof of the pudding. The court building is a huge house of imperial scale and purpose, several complicated passages, stories and at last, the courtroom. A small barred space for the accused with several rows of benches, a carved wood screen. A lot of soldiers in full dress are standing at the windows, at the doors and especially around us. The imperial taste demands reverential fear and tremor. The public in the courtroom is mostly dressed in uniforms; we see many familiar faces – from the KGB. My heart warms up when I see friends from Riga – Pinya Khnokh, Nina, Boris Penson’s mother – a thin stream in the heap of empty curiosity mixed with half-hidden malicious pleasure. It seems unlikely that many of them experienced towards us more hatred than the circumstances demanded, more than they usually hated strangers, especially Jews. The technology of this kind of spectacles creates a mixed feeling of vain curiosity and fear – how did they dare, and joy – it is not I who is tried, what luck that I am here and not there. To justify themselves from within they send to their mind “the normal formula” of attitude and behavior, which is made easier by the authorities that allot roles to every participant and canonize these roles. But sometimes the director’s work fails. This time Silva, who would not accept the discussion that was foisted on her – whether we are Soviet people or not, recited, addressing the Eternity: “If I forget Thee, o Jerusalem…” in Hebrew and in Russian translation, for those who may be interested. These dwarfs started fidgeting and got even redder - “Speak in the language that the court understands”. Her speech broke the planned course of the performance. The public prosecutor yelled: “Death to all of you!”

The Prosecutor pompously and apparently addressing the audience asked a witness a question. He was questioned after somebody’s speech, probably Edik”s. It was said that when discussing the plan of the operation we emphasized the necessity of strictly following the principle “no harm done”, “not even a scratch” – Edik repeated. Now that the performance had failed, the directing needed some patching-up. “Tell me, witness”, - the Prosecutor asked the pilot of “our” plane: “How would you like the kind of treatment if you were caressed with a knuckleduster, petted with a baton and greeted with a gag?” The pilot, frowning and obviously resenting the pleasures that were mentioned by the Prosecutor, answered (not entirely out of place, I think): “And you?”

Prosecutor Ponomaryov (a historic reference: he had been appointed to participate in the Doctor’s Plot process) could tolerate such a thing when aimed at anybody but for himself this would be blasphemy and a failure of the performance, actions discrediting the holy foundations of the empire. The witness’s answer hit the floor of the courtroom in an indecent and insulting way. It was the time for changing of the guard, and the ceremony strengthened the shaking banner of justice. A tall colonel of the Home Office, who was in charge of maintaining order in court, rose with a sour face and gave a signal for the change of guard. Two soldiers, with all their decorations, rose from their bench walking like stone statues, trying not to make a lot of noise with their boots, and with a balance step went to change another two statues. An unfathomable and terrifying performance. A temple and its priests – their rituals looked ridiculous to us, who had crossed the line of the inertia of lie and totalitarian madness. This is a special subject - how a man ceases being afraid and breaks the spider’s web of unconscious fear. I recall the talk between the officer on duty Potskov and Lev Yagman. In Gulag zone 35 Potskov, playing a liberal, asked: “You are smart people, are you aware of the fact that the system is omnipotent. The truth of millions is supporting us, what can you change here?” And then our wise Lev answered: “Smart people are there, on the other side of the fence, saving money to buy a car, and we are staying here”. An inexplicable medical phenomenon – the cancer retreats, not all the cells are prone to madness, not everyone is ready to propagate the cancer’s ideas.

The trial lasted for several days. Dutifully attending various functions, the public filled the room. Every day new representatives of Soviet community had the pleasure of looking at the bestial face of Zionism with wrath and contempt. But even though the directors made efforts to reanimate “the bugbear”, it did not help to dramatize the spectacle. Somebody yelled from the audience, in the marketplace manner: “If they don’t want to live with us, let them beat it to their Israel”. A normal reaction of the man in the street. But these spontaneous reactions had to be nipped in the bud. The Prosecutor in his speech analyzed in detail the activity of the subversive group and of every particular criminal. He lanced the purulent abscess of moral perversion and ideological decay, he demonstrated the rotting essence of Zionism – the most reactionary imperialistic movement. And it is natural that two inveterate recidivists – Fedorov and Murzhenko - made their way into this group, attracted by the putrid odor. ”They even do not repent of their intentions!”, the Prosecutor cried out at the end. This was really terrible. The blind and the deceived, safely packed into the cells of state rules, all of a sudden got out of control and desired to be what they were in their nature. None of us played the heroes, but we crossed the line of collective madness and saw it from the outside. When this happened, we were unable to return to our previous state. At that moment we were already free, even though our actual liberation was still far away, after the end of our sentences and our terms, and that end was sure to come.

Mark in his speech thanked his fortune for meeting people who in difficult circumstances retained their human dignity, “didn’t gnaw each other like spiders in a jug”. Edik tried to screen Yuri Fedorov, declaring that it was he, Edik, who had suggested the idea of escaping to Yuri, knowing certain features of his person. Fedorov, in his turn, maintained that Kuznetsov had not played any role in his deciding to flee from the Soviet Union. He (Fedorov) was the most dramatic person in the trial. He received his fifteen years of imprisonment for his answer to the Prosecutor, when the latter asked him about his silence during the investigation – not a word of evidence, in none of the protocols. And the answer sounded like this: “since the investigation was conducted by the KGB, which is a criminal organization, I could not have any relationship with people whose arms are stained with blood up to their elbows”. He escaped capital punishment only thanks to absence of any compromising material. The case against him was built on a single piece of evidence – a note from the archives which he had written years before, in his previous trial, and had tried to pass on to his mother during her visit. This is, roughly, what the note said: “Dear Mummy, be brave and don’t eat your heart out about me. I only need freedom for fight. I am really sorry that my efforts produced so little result and that the end was so unfortunate.” At eighteen who of us would not write like that? This note had been used in his first trial, they had convicted him “in accordance with his personality” - that is, for his uncompromising refusal to accept the Soviet power. Fedorov had served his time then, according to the court’s ruling. And now, after finding nothing new, in order to justify their hatred, they cross him out from the list of the living for fifteen years. The reality was appalling. The Prosecutor asked for capital punishment for Mark and Edik. Edik, turning to us for a second, played a flight in the sky with his arms. He doesn’t believe it, does he? Feeling empty after the terrible stress of listening to the sentences, among which there were two "extremes",and terms of fifteen, twelve and ten years or imprisonment for the rest of us. On the way to prison I found myself in one Black Maria with Yuri Fedorov, whose voice I recognized. Trying to speak cheerfully and carelessly I asked him what he thought about all of it. Only much later, in the Gulag zone, I could appreciate his answer. Yuri, an old convict, with five years of imprisonment behind him, undoubtedly knew what was really awaiting us. Half an hour ago he was sentenced to fifteen years in strict regime prison camp, and now he answered calmly: “They are trying to scare us, don’t pay attention, none of us will serve even half of our time. In camps they always reconsider sentences and liberate prisoners”. Crossing a little forward into his future – Yuri left the Gulag only in 1985.

I shivered when I realized that it would be five to six years behind the bars, according to Yuri’s estimation. Half a year had already passed since the arrest, and the perspective of waiting so long for the liberation did not encourage me. In my consciousness scenes from reading the sentences emerge again: “In the name… to capital punishment… Kuznetsov…” The Home Office colonel, hiding something behind his back, is trying to get through to the first raw where Mark and Edik stand. “…can file an appeal… in due time”. The colonel, with the help of soldiers who thrust on Edik and Mark, puts handcuffs on both. Silva is shaking hysterically behind my back. The soldiers grab her rudely, preventing her from getting to Edik. We try to push them away from her, we curse, a scuffle starts. Applause from the audience, the public thanks us for pleasing them – “it’s not us who are criminals”. An old woman mounts a chair and shouts : “Hangmen, we will leave this country anyway. You will not shoot down and put behind the bars everyone. Well done, guys! We are with you”. A bouquet of flowers is in the air.

They take us to the KGB. Downstairs Silva’s shrieks can be heard. Near her cell, while they are convoying me somewhere, I see cops and somebody in a white overall, I recognize the woman who examined my private parts after the arrest… My head feels like an iron, I fall on my bunk – half-sleep, half-reality. Again reminiscences block the cellmate’s face, other faces, somebody’s speeches, music, silence. Not with my eyesight, but in some other way I see a horrible beast that broke free from captivity, from the farthest and slimiest darkness of the Universe, the beast that is roaring and untamable, its dragon’s body furiously coiling. It is striking with its spear-like tail, its numerous paws with claws can seize anybody. Evil and hate are stretching out towards me, reaching me, I must turn away, jump aside, stoop… - but no, I am petrified by its gaze and can only die to escape it. I shudder and wake up. My cellmate finishes a sentence - it looks like my black-out lasted only several moments – some inner safety device must have worked.

In the morning they urgently drag me to the lawyer. I refuse to write an appeal for pardon – there’s nobody to talk to, nothing to ask for. “Think of your friends, of Mark, of Edik”, he suggested. “Okay”, - I agree. I wrestle with the text, trying to make it refer to me a little. At last I find some compromise wording and send it through the man on duty in the corridor. Some days pass, less than a week remains before the New Year. No answer from the Supreme Court.

The first of January. As a convict, I have the right to read a newspaper. I demand to bring me something to read. In “Izvestiya” [ a Russian daily broadsheet newspaper – translator’s note] there is a huge article about the hijackers’ case. Reading the article reminds me of the beast in my short swoon. At the end – a gift from Santa Claus: "...being guided by humanitarian principles… considered it possible to cancel the capital punishment and mitigate it to fifteen years of imprisonment". Among other items there is an insignificant one – the mitigation of my twelve years of imprisonment to ten years in a strict regime prison camp. All that time until the decision to cancel capital punishment for Mark and Edik, they were in solitary confinement cells where there’s nothing to hold in one’s hands, except, maybe, their own clothes.

<==Part 3 Part 5 ==>