LEST WE FORGET!
by Evgeny Lein
Formerly a Czar’s prison - now a ‘cardboard factory’
(Soviet propaganda twist)
In the center of town on Admiralteyskaya Embankment is the hotel Leningrad. The hotel is intended to accommodate foreign tourists. The deep, overflowing Neva River and lace-worked bridges can be seen from there. Russian poets once dedicated their verses to that beautiful view. Foreign visitors may look out of their windows and see a symbol of the October revolution - the cruiser Aurora. According to Bolshevik legend, that cruiser shot her cannon to begin the storming of the Winter Palace - the residence of Russian Czars and a “fortress of absolutism”. The tourists admire the view: the Neva River fast flowing from Kirovsky Bridge to Dvortsovy Bridge, the historic buildings along Dvortsovaya Embankment and other architectural masterpieces. It is hard to imagine that only 700 yards up the river from the hotel there is another noteworthy place, remembered by generations of prisoners: the Central Prison. Only riverboat passengers can see the gloomy building surrounded by its thick stone wall.
Amongst the tourists, few paid any attention to these faceless buildings. And if somebody was inquisitive enough to ask an inconvenient question, the guide would answer without hesitation:
- That is the Czar’s former prison, now a cardboard factory.
That was close to the truth. Indeed, the sign The Central Prison has been long since removed. The sign hanging there read: Enterprise IZ-45/1. It was the truth, too, that young detainees aged from 14 to 18 were held there until they were tried. Engaged in socially useful labor, they made cardboard boxes, which were used, in prison cells, as garbage containers. However, the guide was not telling the whole truth. In official newspapers the Enterprise IZ-45/1 was referred to as The Leningrad Regional Investigation Isolation Unit #1. Ordinary people called that horrible Enterprise by another name: Kresty, meaning Crosses in Russian. The reason was that the prison buildings were shaped like two huge crosses with a church in the center. The prison was built during the reign of Czar Alexander III. The cells were intended for one or two prisoners each, but under the Soviet regime 8 to 15 detainees were held there!
The autozek, a cargo-carrying truck without windows, was carrying me to that Enterprise on May 20, 1981. A solid grid separated the driver’s compartment from a narrow space with a side door where the guards sat during the trip. Along the sides of the truck there were two tiny cells resembling cupboards with a narrow slit of a passage between them. Women were isolated in these cupboards from other prisoners who were held in a bigger compartment at the rear. The passage was also sealed with an iron grid as a precaution against any prisoners’ attempts to attack the guards or to escape. There were no holes in the truck through which to look outside, so before long I had no idea where we were headed. For a tediously long time we were traveling all over the city from one district prison to another until the autozek was as full with prisoners as a can of sardines. Finally, the truck stopped. A heavy gate screeched open to admit the autozek, then slammed shut behind us. Beyond the outer fence, another one was revealed. After one more check-point, the gate of the second circle of Communist paradise also opened: “Abandon hope, all ye who enter here”.
The Kresty guards were men and women dressed in shabby army uniforms, with no badge of rank on their shoulders. According to regulations, a guard must be addressed as Citizen in Chief. However, in the Kresty prison the inmates called the guard as tsirik. I was told that this word means soldier in Mongolian. The most likely reason was that there were many guards of Asian origin in the Kresty. Many of them were young men and women attracted to the prison service by the chance to gain a Propiska - the residential permit in Leningrad. In order to be allowed to live legally in a big Soviet city like Leningrad it was necessary either to have been born there or to be honored by having one’s name on the limit list. Such people were called limitchiks. Limitchiks were brought in from villages and province towns to take unpopular jobs in big cities. Tsiriks were among them. A tsirik - was one of the main characters in the prison drama but a prisoner was more colorful.
All those brought there on the autozek were locked in the dog shack, a cell used as a sluice for newcomers. Walls of the cell were covered with rough cement so that the prisoners could not write on the walls. The benches there were cemented into the floor. There was not enough room on the benches for everybody to sit. Many people remained standing.
Within a few hours, guards frisked us. What they were primarily looking for was money. According to the regulations, any money found should have been put on the detainee’s account but the resentful, drunken tsiriks pocketed it. As the frisking was ending, women tsiriks arrived to glean what they could, and then left the office, regretting that the frisking had brought poor results. We were then stripped naked and shepherded like a herd of sheep to a so-called medical inspection. That inspection was simple: a woman shone a bright torch light to our heads and poked it into our groins looking for lice. Those with lice had their hair cut in that same room.
We spent the night in another dog shack with a plank bed in it. I wondered what the prisoners, zeks in Russian slang, were actually like. What I had known about them before were mere rumors. I thought two tattooed guys in the cell were dangerous criminals. They were ignoring everybody else’s presence, lying comfortably on the plank bed and talking about their common acquaintances: who was held in what prison and for what. For the most part, the crimes they mentioned were armed robberies. They were discussing the subject in a casual, matter-of-fact tone.
A young Armenian domushnik - a house burglar, instructed me on the rules of behavior and communication in prison. He did this in a friendly way and with evident pleasure. He seemed clever and our resulting conversation was interesting. Under the circumstances, it seemed strange and incongruous. He was a chess player and had had a musical education. Nonetheless, he earned his living as a domushnik. Last time he had robbed a private apartment he had stolen more than 4,000 rubles worth of jewels. He asked me about my background and he really laughed when I told him that with my Ph.D. degree and 21 years of work experience I had only managed to acquire a three-room apartment and a second-hand car. He had come to the conclusion that it was not worthwhile working at all because the wages were too low. Far better to be a thief, according to him. Article 144 of the Criminal Code (stealing personal property) was not the strictest one. Amnesties and other benefits applied to that Article. My cellmate had rarely been caught because he was not a drunkard, like other domushniks. The high living standard he provided for his wife and two daughters was compensation for his prison terms, he thought. He was not afraid that his property would be confiscated because his marriage to his wife was not officially registered. The moral aspect of his profession did not disturb him - one had a right to choose one’s job! Besides, he never stole without first obtaining reliable information about a rich house to burgle. And in the USSR, rich people very often did not report burglaries to the police when they were robbed. They were afraid that the authorities might investigate their sources of income and that they would then become accused criminals instead of ruined victims. The domushnik was obviously fond of himself. His attitude to me was patronizing.
There was another group of prisoners, the so-called baklans: hoodlums, rapists, and wool thieves who had by chance stolen a bolt of linen or a pair of jeans. Most often, they were alcoholics, bullies, and cruel, crazy cowards. For no reason at all they would beat to death the weak or the hesitant. When meeting resistance, they retreated immediately.
One more group of pariahs among the prisoners was the BOMZh. BOMZh is a Russian abbreviation meaning ‘without fixed abode’. Usually, they were shabby tramps. Home for them meant the wells of the city’s heating system. They were filthy, lice-ridden derelicts. Other prisoners despised them and abused them with cruelty.
However, the majority of prisoners were neither murderers nor gangsters, nor did they belong to any of the other groups mentioned above. They were merely victims of the Soviet economic system.
I made the acquaintance of Victor D., the former head of a geologic exploration team. During his expedition he had falsified his team's salary reports. It was a typical situation under the socialist regime when money was paid not for the work done but for the number of people employed. That was why Victor had exaggerated the number of his employees to increase their wages and his own salary. He was imprisoned for stealing state property, so he expected a stronger punishment than a house burglar. Under Soviet law, stealing private property was a minor offense, whereas embezzlement of state funds was considered a most serious crime.
Another unlucky fellow was Yosef K. He had been an organizational manager at a small factory and had signed 212 rubles worth of credit-slips for work not carried out. He had done that because the director ordered him to sign these credit-slips as a tip to drivers who had delivered raw materials to the factory. But it was Yosef, not the director, who went to jail. Yosef approached everybody with his sad story, complaining, “All managers do that, it’s common practice! Why did they send ME here? ” That was strange indeed. The amount of money mentioned in his case was ridiculously small. His ethnic origin seemed to be his main crime.
Such criminals made up the majority in Soviet prisons and corrective labor camps. I spent my first night in prison with these people.
In the morning we were escorted to the shower. What a pleasure it was! Four days had passed since my arrest but it felt like I had been in prison for a lifetime. While we were showering they sent our clothes for a heat treatment. That was bad news for nylon shirts and socks. However, I saw neither bedbugs nor lice in the Kresty prison. After the shower, everyone was given a mat, a dark-gray sheet, an iron cup and a plate, and we were brought to the cells.
I was brought to cell #893. The door clanged shut and I stood speechless - there were eight prisoners crowded into a cell of seven square yards. Six prisoners were lying on four narrow two-storey beds and two were on the floor under the beds.
- How do you do. Where may I find a place for myself?
My good manners amused them.
- On the floor, between the beds, in the passage. Ha-ha-ha! What did you expect?, - the one who looked like the leader shouted.
I squatted near the closed door and looked around. The prisoners’ faces were repulsive. I felt desperate. The high ceiling was cathedral-like. The window was covered with a double grid made of criss-crossed iron bars that were very close together. They barely let in air and blocked the outside view completely. The light was on round the clock. A lavatory and water tap was in the corner. The door was made of thick steel, with a small window hatch in the middle, the so-called fodder hole.
The fodder hole opened three times a day. Eight human-like creatures that had so far been sitting in peculiar positions on beds and under beds, rushed to gulp down their balanda, a mashed food distributed in penitentiaries. Then they used the toilet in full view of their roommates.
When a prisoner was taking a walk it felt even more like being in a cage in the zoo. The walking yard consisted of boxes the size of a horse stall, with a cement floor and very high walls, covered with a steel net above. A tsirik on duty walked around above the boxes on a gallery. He made sure that prisoners from different cells did not communicate.
Later I wrote to my daughter and her friends from Siberia:
“The psychological effect of the first days of imprisonment is extremely powerful if the new inmate is not prepared. One of the main reasons is that he hears from the more experienced prisoners about horrible events in Soviet prisons. I will tell you, too, about the monstrous features of the Soviet penitentiary system. However, I want to emphasize once more that it is possible to save oneself, one's sanity, one's human dignity and one’s priorities if one knows the rules of behavior in prison and understands the psychological essence of the anti-human system which the communist fanatics have created. It is vital to be able to look at yourself from outside, not to shiver, not to panic from the very first moment”.
“Proper conditions and supplies should be provided
for prisoners to enable normal body functioning”
(Article 56 of the Penal Code)
Let us look at what the communists considered proper conditions under which to hold people, people not yet sentenced by trial but only suspected of violating the socialist law.
In the Kresty prison, the day started at six in the morning. At that moment a tsirik turned the radio on and the prisoners, barely awake, sang their curses in tune to the USSR anthem. The fodder holeclanged open and the prisoners were given their share of bread and mush, and a cup of hot water. The bread was of the so-called specialized brand. It was wet and barely edible even for the hungriest of people. The inmates suffered from heartburn after eating it. The mush was made of oats or barley mixed with mice excrement but it tasted delicious. So the main task of the prisoner on duty in the cell was to curse the balandyor - food distributor, to deceive him and to get more mush for other prisoners in the cell. In addition, the prisoners were supposed to be given tea in the morning but tea was used as currency so the prisoners were given hot water only because the tea had already been stolen.
At times, a paramedic walked round on an inspection tour. Most often the prisoners complained of stomach ache. The paramedic usually waved her hand saying:
- That is because of your bread. I can do nothing for you”.
The first things one lost in prison were one’s teeth. The paramedic announced:
- We don’t treat teeth, we only pull them out. This is a prison, not a hospital.
The prisoners were permanently hungry. Everybody eagerly awaited lunch. The first choice was either shchi - a repulsive concoction containing rotten fermented cabbages, or soup made of fish bones. This kind of soup was called grave. The second choice was peas, or barley, or khryapa, a mixture of potatoes, beets and some other ingredients that very faintly resembled vegetables. The prisoners gulped all this very quickly and then waited for a spoonful of mush and a cup of hot water for supper.
Was it possible to survive under such conditions?
Surprisingly, the answer was positive. Later, in Sverdlovsk and Achinsk prisons, I saw conditions far worse than that. In the Kresty prison in Leningrad there was at least some kind of order. Firstly, we were allowed to take a shower every 10 days. That was a holiday for us. Secondly, before being sent to labor camps, each prisoner was permitted to receive a food parcel of up to 10 pounds from his relatives once a month. Legally, he was permitted to receive it, but in reality it did not always arrive. If a prisoner was single, or if his relatives abandoned him, other prisoners in the cell considered him a sponger. That was why the first thing I heard when entering the cell was a seemingly strange question:
- Has your wife abandoned you? Will she send you a parcel?”
I had no doubts about my wife. Indeed, Irina was clever enough to send a parcel on the very first day. There were ten pounds of real food: smoked sausages, cheese, dry fruits. The main things were onions and garlic. Onions and garlic occupied a special place on a prisoner's menu. Prisoners ate onions like apples to compensate for the lack of vitamins. Officially, some vegetables and fruits were included in prison rations. Actually, during the entire period from May till October, we had half a cucumber per prisoner twice and an apple once.
Naturally, I did not eat what was in my parcel alone but shared it with everybody in the cell. Immediately, I became persona grata there. Ten pounds of food a month was not very much for eight men but we had a real gastronomic feast! I was amazed also, when I found a package with makhorka - the Russian brand of tobacco. Irina knew quite well that I didn’t smoke but Natan Rodzin, one of the managers of a foundation for supporting political prisoners, had told her that makhorka was like hard currency in a prison cell. Many problems, conflicts and even fights related to smoking take place in prisons. Almost everybody there was a smoker, and they smoked heavily because they had nothing else to do. The smokers picked up dirty khabariks, cigarette butts, in walking yards. Several people would take turns smoking the same cigarette without being too fussy. Once, I fell asleep and was awakened by the noise of a fight. It turned out that K., a newcomer in the cell, had hidden his tobacco and was begging other prisoners for something to smoke. When they ran out of their stock, K. started smoking his own tobacco secretly in the night. Of course, the other prisoners detected the smell, took his tobacco away and brutally beat him.
In general, fights in prison were extremely violent. However, I noticed that the prisoner being beaten always somehow deserved it with his excessive servility or other behavior. I don’t mean the cases when people were beaten or even disabled upon orders from the administration. To me personally, the tsiriks brought more trouble than I got from cellmates.
Don’t trust them. Don’t be afraid of them. Don’t beg for mercy!
Shipwreck victims! It was not the elements that killed you. It was fear.
Leaving me in the regional investigation unit, investigator Dudkina said she would come to the Kresty prison in a day or two to clarify the details of my crime, to arrange meetings between the witnesses and myself and to present the official charge. I was waiting eagerly.
But a week passed, then another week, then a month . . .
Uncertainty, a vivid imagination and the expectation of physical violence may drive one mad faster than the real problems of life in prison, though there was no shortage of these.
In my cell, a man of about 28 was in charge. His sobriquet was Hunter. He was accused of killing his neighbor with a shotgun.
Other prisoners in our cell were accused, for the most part, under article 206/3 (malicious hooliganism with attempted use of knives). There were both tragicomedies and real criminal cases.
K. was a truck driver. After driving a long route he got drunk, as is the habit in Russia, and started arguing with his mother-in-law about a heap of rags in a closet. He started throwing out the old woman’s dearest possessions. She tried to defend her property. K. grabbed a meat cleaver and threatened to hack his mother-in-law to death. She ran to a police station. Later the old woman fearfully asked the police to release the breadwinner of the family - she had only wanted to frighten him. But the machinery of Soviet justice had already started in motion. K. was sentenced to three years in corrective labor camps.
Another fellow-prisoner was accused under article 191/2, like myself. The difference was that he had not gone for a police officer’s epaulet, but had merely smashed a policeman’s head with a bottle.
The most violent and dangerous person in the cell was Youngster. He had just turned eighteen. From an early age, this guy had spent his entire life in the underworld and was boasting about his conquests. He had committed several crimes which were so serious in nature that he was arrested even while he was a minor. He had spent several months in the Kresty department for young offenders and celebrated his 18th birthday in our cell. It was good that everybody was subordinated to Hunter there.
Hunter realized what kind of a person I was as soon as I arrived in the cell. I did not force my story upon people but only answered when they asked under which Article I was accused. That article Resisting the Authorities was a respected one, but within an hour of my being in the cell Hunter jumped out of his bed and told me in a threatening tone:
- The likes of you never beat cops!
I did not conceal that I, indeed, had not beaten a cop but that I had submitted an application for emigration to Israel and was actually being punished for that. It was a dangerous moment. I did not pretend to be one of their crowd. On the other hand, I avoided any challenge, and that saved me from trouble on my very first day there.
Day after day passed . . .
The main entertainment in the cell was homemade cards, dominoes and the game mandavoshka. Mandavoshkas are lice dwelling on human genitalia. Prisoners used that word for the prison version of the game try to climb up. The playing area was carved in the floor linoleum, the dice and pieces were made out of bread. The prisoners used bread for making dominoes, cigarette holders and statuettes, very often indecent ones.
I played chess with Hunter. We used chess pieces made out of our special prison brand bread, which got stale and became as hard as a rock.
Every 10 days, prisoners in our cell were allowed to bring in five books, on subjects dedicated to the Bolshevik revolution and Soviet ideology. The way the prisoners treated the books was barbaric. They drew pornographic pictures on the pages or tore the pages out to compensate for the lack of toilet paper in the cell. My fellow-prisoners were amazed when I actually started reading these books. They were all sick and tired of the ideological indoctrination of these books, which they had been force-fed since their school days. However, it was a great success when I read aloud selected episodes about revolutionaries serving their terms in Czar’s prisons. The prisoners split their sides laughing when they heard that Vladimir Lenin, organizer and leader of the Union for Liberating the Working Class, used milk to write secret messages between the lines in the books which his friends brought to him in prison. He made ink pots out of bread, filled them with milk and swallowed them when the guards approached his cell. Milk! Inmates in Soviet prisons could hardly even dream about that.
This success encouraged me. I became bold enough to read aloud quotations from Soviet newspapers about the “merciless conditions in Western prisons”. In one of the articles it said that inmates in an American prison were allowed to watch only black and white TV.
TV in prison? That was an excellent joke!
Another article described an uprising of “the PLO freedom defenders in prisons of the Israeli conquerors”. The freedom defenders were unhappy because they were given chicken instead of beef, and they did not like Israeli-made cigarettes. For Soviet zeks - prisoners, permanently hungry and dreaming of balanda and a dirty khabarik - cigarette butt, reading such reports was an enticement and an irritation at the same time.
From time to time, guards threw in the CPSU newspaper Pravda (Truth) through the fodder hole. That was a feast for me to get information between the lines. After reading it, I could use the margins of newspaper for writing down Hebrew words that I managed to learn before my arrest. My fellow-prisoners got excited: what kind of code were these strange letters? Was I informing on them? I explained a few things to them about the Hebrew language. One of the baklans made some anti-Semitic remarks and with clenched fists approached me menacingly. I was fast enough to hurl a Russian boot sapog at his face and then mentioned that his name, Mikhail, was a Jewish name, derived from Moshe. He was so shocked by this shameful revelation that he remained silent for a very long time.
Like the majority of the Soviet population, criminals dislike Jews but respect them. Very often they discussed Jewish solidarity in the cell. One joke they used to tell was as follows:
"Big bosses came to hell to see what was going on there. They saw big pots of boiling water with the sinners sitting inside them. One pot was covered with a lid, and heavy bricks were weighing the lid down to prevent it from being removed.
What is that? - the bosses asked.
The answer was:
- There are Jews sitting in there. The lid is necessary because as soon as one of them manages to get out he starts pulling out the others.
The bosses got worried and sai:
- Then there should be lids on other pots too.
The administrators of hell answered:
- That is not necessary. If one of the sinners in these pots tries to climb out, the others will pull him back in".
Whenever I received parcels (and later on, letters from my friends or relatives) I heard news about the Jewish solidarity movement. Many other prisoners were abandoned by their relatives. Very often, their wives applied for a divorce in order to save their reputation and to protect their children from the stigma of being treated as the children of a criminal. Under Soviet law, the prisoner’s consent to the divorce was not needed in such cases.
More than once my cellmates told me:
- I don’t like Jews but the best defense lawyers are Jewish.
There were no defense lawyers in the cell, so they asked me for advice.
It was after crossing the Urals that I heard the word Zhid (the Russian version of Kike) . Anti-Semitism was far stronger there. In the Kresty they treated me with respect. At times when I was sitting totally withdrawn they told me:
- You, mate! Don’t let your mind race!
They meant, don’t dwell on your grieving thoughts. Do something else. Unravel socks into threads and wrap the threads around ball pens, or play dominoes, but don’t let your thoughts run around in circles. Don’t go insane.
And I tried to find something to do. Anything. I was doing my best but it was difficult to eliminate my concerns: What are my children doing, and Irina, and my parents? What is going on outside the prison?
One day merged into the next . . . The thirtieth day, the thirty first, the thirty second . . .
Suddenly a woman tsirik brought the second parcel from my relatives. This was not just some food for the stomachs of my fellow-prisoners and myself. This was a message from the outside! I demanded a list of the parcel’s contents and I recognized my daughter and Irina’s handwriting. So they were alive and remembered me. The tsirik was cursing because normally she had the opportunity of taking a slice of sausage or a lemon for herself. But I did not sign the receipt until I knew what I wanted to know.
Again I was counting the days . . . 50, 51, . . . 58
At last, on July 13, 1981 they threw me out. Investigator Dudkina gladly told me,
– Everything is OK!
– What do you mean?
– The investigation is over.
– But I have several applications to submit. I demand that meetings with the witnesses be arranged.
– The case is being closed now, - she said. - There are just some loose ends to tie up. Sign here that you are pleading guilty and feel genuinely remorseful. And by the way, you are obliged to sign the report of the medical examination of police captain Semyonov who was injured by you.
This time I was not in a hurry. I found out that the medical examination had been carried out twenty days after my arrest. What could the expert possibly see after such a long period? It turned out that the expert did not even examine the policeman I had allegedly beaten, but drew his conclusions based on a document from the clinic, which the injured captain attended. For some strange reason, there was no such document in the folder. I had been deprived of my right to be present at the examination and to ask questions. And now they wanted me to sign the report of the medical examination, which took place on a date in the past. And that was not all. The main figures in my case, including those who commanded the dispersal of the Jewish seminar, were not questioned and were not mentioned at all in the investigation documents: Investigator Dudkina was not interested in such small details. She was coercively persuading:
- Your protests will only delay the process and bring harm upon yourself. You have already spent enough time in jail. Come on, let us close the case.
I already knew by that time that my fellow-prisoners had been hearing the same sweet talk and had swallowed the bait. Uncertainty was so terrible that people were ready to sign anything for the sake of being tried as soon as possible.
I refused to plead guilty and sent an application to the prosecutor demanding that my meetings with the eyewitnesses be arranged. I demanded that photographs taken in Wassermann’s apartment be submitted as evidence in the file of my case.
Dudkina left. She arrived the following day with the prosecutor’s resolution rejecting all my applications. Lethargically, she tried again to persuade me to plead guilty with a compromise formula: I plead partly guilty. Many people agree to that. But it is a fraud - the word partly has no real meaning. I again refused to plead guilty and Dudkina disappeared.
Some days later I was dragged out of the cell and escorted by way of underground corridors to the investigation office again. Another man greeted me:
- I am your advocate.
Lawyer K. began by giving me a short note and a chocolate bar from Irina. That was her first message since my arrest: her words of love and a couple of lines about our children. The lawyer did not allow Irina to write anything about the essence of the case or about the support that other Jews were ready to render to me. He used Irina’s message as a password to show me that I could trust him completely. Indeed, on seeing Irina’s handwriting I softened up and forgot with whom I was dealing.
‘My lawyer’ started shouting as though he was a prosecutor:
- You are a father of two, an educated person, and yet you are playing silly Jewish games. You are ruining the fate of your children...”
Obviously, he was saying all that for the benefit of the investigator and for the microphones, but all the same it was inappropriate. I was exhausted after my struggle against the investigator and the prosecutor. For a very long time I had been waiting for a defense lawyer to come and support me, not the accusers, at least for his professional duty. And now the lawyer had arrived - a Jew who was yelling at me and repeating his advice to reduce everything to a purely criminal aspect. It was so unexpected. Neither before that moment nor after it did I ever feel so helpless.
K. rattled off the details of my case. In order to speed things up, he omitted some insignificant passages. I hurriedly tried to write down his words - I did not know that the law did not limit the time in which the accused may get acquainted with his/her case. The lawyer just scrolled through several pages of the case. I mustered up the courage to ask what these pages were about. He answered:
- Oh, nothing! That’s a record of questioning your wife, some love letter, nothing related to the essence of the case”.
- Well, what exactly is written there?”
- I love my husband very much. Our children are proud of their father. We believe he is innocent...
It was so important for me to read these lines when mail was forbidden to me! I knew nothing about them, and permanent reminders that I was ruining my children’s lives injured me more than the tsiriks and balanders who hurt me physically. How clever Irina was to find a way for this message of encouragement to reach me!
The record of Irina’s investigation gave me more strength. On my own initiative I suggested that the defense lawyer send a protest about the one-sided investigation to a senior prosecutor and a request to add some missing documents. The lawyer agreed and even wrote these requests. He then suggested that I add my signature, confirming that I had been shown the investigation documents. I did not foresee the trap. Well, yes, they showed me my case, so why shouldn’t I sign? Now we shall start preparing our defense arguments, together with the lawyer, I thought. But unfortunately it turned out that by so doing I had sealed my fate. With that signature we buried all the applications the lawyer had just written. The investigator Dudkina entered looking happy and collected the papers. The lawyer stood up and emphasized once more:
- The only way for you to get some mercy is to limit the case to a purely criminal charge of resisting a representative of the authorities. No connection with your Jewish seminars, emigration or any other Jewish tricks!
Perplexed, I returned to my cell. After assessing the situation, I sent applications to the investigator and to the lawyers’ board the next day asking for one more meeting with lawyer K. I wanted to tell him and my relatives that I was going to carry out my defense myself. Besides, I needed the lawyer to clarify some procedural details, to transmit my regards to my family and to transmit my applications and inquiries. Alas, I did not see lawyer K. anymore.
Soon I received the completed accusation form - the ‘obyebon’ gently translated to 'screwing up' in jail slang, and an official message that my case had been sent to the Court of Law.
I did not know the definite trial date.
Again, day after day went by and week after week.
I was still in my cell with no contact with my relatives, isolated from the outside world. However, I had with me all the notes I had so hurriedly made during my conversation with the lawyer and quotations from the investigation documents, so I started preparations for the trial. I decided in advance that in my defense speech I would refute the accusation of resisting the authorities, and in my closing remarks I would express my protest against the authorities’ discriminatory policy towards Jews wishing to repatriate to Israel. The question was: will Jews hear me, will they be allowed into the courtroom?
At that time, Irina did not know about my decision to carry out my own defense. She was rushing around looking for another defense lawyer. Lawyer Denisov undertook the case. He saw me the day before the trial. He accepted my decision to defend myself and answered my questions about the trial procedure.
“Soviets courts are never wrong”
“With their every activity, the judges are
carrying out the policy of the Communist Party”.
(Article 16 of the Criminal Procedural Code)
The trial was scheduled for 3 p.m. on August 4th but they woke me up and sent me to the dog shack the night before. It was impossible to relax or concentrate there. I lost track of time. Besides, I was not given my ration of balanda that day. Finally they dragged me to the court. When I got off the autozek I was paralyzed with surprise - Jews known and unknown to me were standing in front of the court building shouting, Shalom, Evgeny! I saw Irina with a new foreign-made dress on, which was a sign for me that my family was not left to its own devices. My spiritual state improved at once, I was ready to defend myself. The guards pushed me into the court building and then into a small iron cage with a grid door. I saw something peculiar through that door: somebody, who later turned out to be the judge, nervously demanded that the commander of the guards send police reinforcements to the courtroom to prevent the Jews there from committing any violations. The commander was calming the judge down, reassuring him that there were already enough proper people in the courtroom and surrounding area.
It was a great surprise that so many participants of the Jewish seminar had managed to come to the courtroom. Closed doors were common practice for Jewish trials. This time I saw many refuseniks among the more obvious characters in the hall. What kind of a democratic feast was that? The reason was that Irina and Jewish emigration activists had attracted the attention of Jewish associations, foreign journalists and even politicians to my arrest in Leningrad and to the case of Boris Chernobylsky in Moscow.
The US Consul General in Leningrad and several foreign tourists attended my trial. Thus the KGB decided to show not only the Jews, but also our foreign friends, who were the boss. Obviously, the KGB wanted to demonstrate the power of the Soviet regime to the entire network of human rights activists in the West.
I was sitting in the iron cage awaiting the trial and inevitable massacre. However, I was determined to use the court as a rostrum. I was not going to beg for mercy.
There is no better way to give a clear idea of how the beginning of the trial appeared, than to quote an American student. When returning to the Free World on board a plane he wrote:
“The day of the trial arrived. Three of us, Martha, Laurie and I met outside ‘Finland’ metro station. As we walked toward the courthouse, I saw a number of people milling around the entrance - including the US Consul and his assistant who were just going in. I recognized many faces of refuseniks who were hoping to get into the trial to lend moral support to their innocent friend.
Martha, Laurie and I entered the building - trying to blend in with the crowd. I spoke with the Consul for a few minutes, mostly small talk. He told us to keep a low profile.
There was a crowd of people waiting in a corridor outside the actual courtroom. It was dark and small and we were crushed together, shoulder to shoulder. It was difficult to keep a low profile: Not only did our clothing give us away as foreigners but refuseniks constantly came up to say hello and how glad they were that we were there. Conversations were animated, faces full of expression and love. Some were well-known long term refuseniks, such as Izya Kogan, wearing a skull-cap, and Lev Furman. Most of Leningrad’s Hebrew teachers and Jewish activists were there. Also present were a number of young Jews who were students in Institutes. As such, with threat of expulsion from school, they had the most to lose by being there. They came anyway. The Jewish community of Leningrad was united in its support of a fellow Jew.
Leaning against the walls was another group - so obviously estranged and different that they might as well have worn signs announcing themselves as government agents. They spoke to no one and their very appearance and disinterested expressions clashed noticeably with that of the Jews.
At last a door opened and a stampede ensued. I was pushed in the direction of the opening. I had no control over where I was being shoved. Pushed out of the throng, I ended up near a wall, separated from my American friends and I grabbed a seat. There were about 80 people pushed into the tiny spectator area, which could actually accommodate only about 45 people. People sat on each other and some stood or knelt between the rows of hard, shiny benches. I turned to find my friends and saw Lev Shapiro, standing in the doorway, unable to get in. In front of me were three rows of people kneeling. The police wanted the squatters out. At first they refused to leave. The police became angry and threatened to throw all the spectators out. The kneelers complied with the police orders. Actually, the police didn’t need to repeat their command - they immediately became brutal and started kicking the Jewish spectators.
The US Consul General and his assistant were seated near me but they didn't speak to me. The room was hot and very crowded. In front sat the judge and two aides in dark business suits under a sign, which read ‘Proletariat of the World Unite’. To the left sat the court stenographer without a stenographic machine. There was a window that faced onto the street and I could see all the ousted spectators standing outside. Occasionally, they would peer through the windows to see what was happening and a cop on the street would try to hustle them away. These windows were never opened. Our body heat, combined with the cramped seating, made the courtroom extremely hot. I remember one very large man. His head rested against the wall, sweat poured down his face. I asked him if he was O.K. His head bobbed a few times signaling that he was determined to stay. I handed him a ‘Lifesaver’.
There was a low mumbling in the courtroom as we waited. Then the door opened and in walked the defendant, strong and calm, surrounded by five burly guards, marching him in with hands cuffed behind. He said in Hebrew, ‘Shalom Chaverim, Ani sameach lir’ot etchem - Greetings, friends, I am happy to see you’. And he smiled at us. Despite the rule of silence, we replied “Shalom” in unison. He was escorted by the policemen to the little box in which he would sit.
It was difficult to convey the impressions this man left on me after only twenty seconds. His heavily bearded face and jet black hair bespoke a silent dignity and pride. His intensity was etched in his face, burned in his eyes. The total image was disarming. Here was a proud man, a courageous and heroic man, small in stature but large in grace, fated to suffer unspeakable hardships for following the dictates of his conscience, for standing up for what he knew was right and just”.
The questions began: When the judge and prosecutor spoke to their own witnesses their tone was encouraging and supportive. The judge was very gentle with them - almost paternal. They were lead gingerly from one question to the next. When the judge spoke to Lein or his witnesses, he was accusatory and sarcastic, abrupt and rude. The court stenographer stopped taking notes when the defendant’s witnesses testified. And the forensic expert, who was there to confirm that Lein had assaulted a policeman, sat doodling on a pad of paper, never listening to anything that was being said. The Soviet Courts are never wrong. Lein would be found guilty.
During a short break, Martha, Laurie and I had to leave to catch a plane to Moscow, the last leg of our trip to Russia. We said good-bye to our friends. They were all thankful we had come, asking only that we tell of the trial when we returned to our country. Walking outside the courtroom, we looked through the windows to wave to our friends. They waved back to us, blowing kisses and raising fists. We were glad to see that our places had been taken by other Jews, other friends”.
“I do not plead guilty!”
My refusenik friends took advantage of their presence in the courtroom and secretly made a tape recording of the whole trial. These records were later printed by Samizdat. I have used these publications to recreate the trial sequence here.
All rise! The court is now in session!
- This case will be heard by the Justice consisting of Court Chairman Denisenkov, People’s Assistants Sodin and Ershov in the presence of Prosecutor Novikov and Defense Lawyer Denisov.
- I wish to represent myself because I can do this more effectively than an ‘independent’ Soviet lawyer.
The prosecutor interrupted:
- The defendant has a right to defend himself but it must be explained to him that in such a case the prosecutor will nevertheless take part in the trial.
O.K., the trial continued.
- The injured parties Semyonov, Zholobov, and Evseyev, the court will read you your rights...
Unexpected, Zholobov, member of the Komsomol operative detachment stood up:
- We are not the injured party. We were summoned to the court as witnesses for the prosecution.
There was an outcry amongst the spectators. If they were witnesses they had to be sent out of the courtroom until they were called in to be questioned. But the judge needed their presence in the room because otherwise they would not know what the defendant, the witnesses for defense and their colleagues had said before, so they might get confused with their false testimonies. Consequently the judge re-qualified them as the victims.
The Judge silenced the stupid Zholobov:
- You will now sit down!.
The Judge read the accusation...
- Stand up, Lein. Do you understand what you are being accused of?
- I deny all accusations.
At that moment, through the window I saw the Jews outside the court building start to run. Some men in plain clothes were chasing them. It turned out that Grigory Genusov took a picture of me through the courtroom door, and they tried to grab him with his camera. He was fast enough to hand the camera to other refuseniks and they fled.
At once the Defendant made another request:
- The investigation in the court has to be carried out openly, so I insist that all Jews who were stopped at the entrance to the court be allowed into the courtroom. Through the window I see the police disperse those people who had participated in the Jewish seminar and had witnessed my arrest.
- What do you need them for? This is not a theater.
The prosecutor interrupted the Judge and demanded to start questioning the defendant.
Another incident occurred in the hall. A militiaman saw the American Consul-General making notes. The militiaman stalked from behind and grabbed the notebook out of the diplomat’s hands. The Judge did not dare to send out an official representative of the USA, but warned him in a threatening tone that it was forbidden to make any notes during the trial. The judge’s words and the militiaman’s actions were in contradiction to the Note to Article 334 of the Soviet Procedural Code. This note states: Citizens present in the courtroom have a right of disseminating by any means anything they have seen or heard in the Courtroom. But Soviet law and socialist realism are two different things.
The “injured” militia captain Semyonov was invited to give his testimony.
- What occurred on May 17, 1981?
- We were told some commotion was going on in the apartment. When we came upstairs, a plainclothes unit was already inside. The defendant was standing there waving his hands. One moment he touched my epaulet. The corridor was narrow and overcrowded. Two other men from the operative detachment helped me to carry Lein out of the apartment. In the elevator he behaved himself.
- What kind of injury did you have?
- Hm-m-m...there was a slight mark... Hm-m-m, actually a very small mark.
- Sit down!!!
The Judge could not conceal his dissatisfaction with the police captain’s testimony. Indeed, according to the conclusion of the medical examination, there was a huge blood spot on the captain’s hip. I was accused of tearing off the epaulet, not just of touching it. According to the accusation, I had been resisting, dragging and pulling away, whereas the captain said that I had behaved myself. Such confusions often happen when the KGB is operating through useful fools.
Refuseniks Utevskaya and Frumkin were admitted to the courtroom in turn to give their testimonies. The judge and the prosecutor interrupted the witnesses for the defense, threatening and shouting at them. The prosecutor yelled at Zhenya Utevskaya:
- You say they were dragging you out. Why didn’t you walk out yourself?
And Zhenya answered:
- Some people forced their way into the apartment without showing any identification documents; they went to the kitchen, threw our personal belongings around, poked inside them, took pictures of us collectively and separately, moved people from place to place as if we were just inanimate objects.
The Judge lost his temper and declared a recession until the next day. It was obvious that they had failed to conduct the trial according to their planned scenario, so the Judge was waiting for instructions from his competent comrades.
The Jews left, and I was put into the cage in the court building again. Only at midnight did they return me to the Kresty prison. Luckily they put me into my old cell where everybody knew me. The prisoners had already had their supper and there was no balanda for me but I was so tense that I did not feel hungry. The fellow-prisoners fell asleep and for the first time I was glad that the light was on in the cell round the clock. I wrote my defense speech and my concluding remarks so that the court secretary would not distort what I planned to say. By 3 a.m., I had finished, and an hour later they came to take me to the dog shack.
On the morning of August 5, 1981 there were even more Jews in front of the court building than the day before. The message that I was not broken spread instantly all over the city. Even pessimists joined the activists. There were also more secret agents of every variety. When the courtroom doors opened the druzhinniks and the Jews rushed into the narrow passage from two sides. There was a jam, and the Jews would, of course, have been blamed for it later were it not for Pinchas Astrakhan. Irina told me afterwards that Pinchas, a tall, very strong Jew, pushed his way to the door but did not enter. He was standing by the door letting other Jews enter. The druzhinniks were pounding him on the back but he was determined and strong enough to block their way. Finally, they pushed him in but there were already many Jews in the courtroom.
The Judge resumed the trial, shouting irritably. This time he did not like the fact that many Jews wearing skull caps were sitting in the hall. ”That shows disrespect to the court”, - he was yelling, - ”Leave the courtroom”. Some Jews removed their skull caps. Some Jews refused to do it but remained in the courtroom. The Judge had to succumb.
- The trial will proceed, - the Judge said. He called me to the stand because I was conducting my own defense.
Again I repeated all the circumstances of the raid on the apartment and remarked that the testimonies of the prosecution witnesses and the medical certificate had obviously been falsified. I demanded that the whole accusation against me be dropped because it was blatantly inconsistent.
The prosecutor delivered his accusatory speech:
- Umm... The defendant himself does not deny, umm, or he rather confirms that there were several dozen people there. In a one-room apartment! Persons of Jewish nationality gathered there to listen to a lecture on Jewish culture and history, as they explained. Indeed, our law does not forbid them to gather. But in that case there were at least 60 people present. That was why members of the operative detachment arrived there to see what kind of a gathering, what kind of ill-intentioned meeting was taking place. And what did Lein do instead of showing his respect? He tore off the police officer’s epaulet and then kicked the policeman. He was violent. Well, did Lein know that he... that he... that he would be punished for that?
- Yes, he did! Because Citizen Lein is not just anybody, not just an ordinary person, but an educated man... What is the defendant's own attitude to what he has done? Is he sorry? Is he repentant? Lein is on trial today not because he is a Jew, as somebody suggested here, but because we have laws... I suggest sentencing him to three years in a penitentiary. Such a sentence would be a good lesson for the others and a warning for them to remember!
The prosecutor was nervous. He was ill at ease with his tongue. The audience was mocking him. The Jews obviously had won a moral victory. But the sentence of three years in a labor camp, which the prosecutor demanded, was also something to be taken into account.
The defendant’s final statement read:
- The accusation and the punishment, which the prosecutor awarded me, are surprisingly harsh.
- I AM COMPLETELY INNOCENT! The circumstances of my arrest and the ensuing investigation show that the prosecution is biased and is planning a punishment for my family and myself because of our desire to know the history and the language of the Jewish people, and for our intention to leave the USSR for Israel. Almost three years ago, on July 3, 1978, I applied to OVIR for my family and myself for permission to be repatriated, but this permission was refused. During those three years, my intention has not changed but rather has become stronger. Imprisonment will not change it either.
And the next words were said in Hebrew:
- ESH LI TIKVA SHE EHIE BA-IRUSHALAIM - I HOPE THAT ONE DAY I WILL LIVE IN JERUSALEM.
And all the Jews in the courtroom echoed:
The Judge jumped up nervously:
- Speak Russian!
The justices left the courtroom to confer in Chambers, and half an hour later a sentence was passed:
“On behalf of the Russian Soviet Federative Socialist Republic, the People's Court finds Lein Evgeny guilty under Article 191/2 of the RSFSR Criminal Code (Resistance to authorities) and sentences him to TWO years in a state penitentiary; under Article 24-2, the punishment may be considered probationary and he may be sent to work in places determined by the bodies responsible for carrying out the sentence”.
The reaction was overwhelming! The Jews started embracing each other in the courtroom. Many people could not understand the official terms. They only heard the word probationary and thought I would be released from custody immediately. That did not happen, alas. The bodies responsible for carrying out the sentence held me for two more months in prison, then it took six weeks to transport me to Siberia where I was supposed to be straightened out by labor socially useful to society.
All the same, we won. The KGB failed to break me, to suppress the witnesses, and to frighten the Jews.