Some Rough Notes of a Prisoner for Zion

Part 1.

by Roald Zelichonok

Translated by Michael Sherbourne.
(Notes with the letters “-Tr.” have been added
by the Translator, all other footnotes
have been added by the author).

       On 5th February, 1987 I was in Corrective Labour Camp No.I.Ch.l67/5, a "general regime" camp in a little town in the Turkestan Chimkentskaya province of Kazakhstan. That morning, after morning roll-call I went as usual from the living-quarters zone across to the work-zone, to my place of work in the steam-boiler workshop. But on the following morning a Zhiguli car belonging to Captain A., the deputy camp commander, rushed us to the railway station to catch the express train "Alma-Ata - Moscow". In the car, apart from the captain and myself, there were two "Gebisti" (K.G.B. men -Tr.) from Alma-Ata. It seemed that they had made this long journey only in order to put three questions to me. "Did you know V.Vissotsky?" "Hardly at all." "We read your statement demanding that after your release you and your wife should be allowed to go to Israel. Aren't you afraid of going there? "Ah-ha" I thought, "is this what they've come to ask, after all I've been through - three camps and almost a dozen prisons? Well, anyway, that's their usual method - to put a lot of unnecessary questions so as to conceal among them one question that's really important for them" - and aloud I answered: "The only thing that I'm afraid of is the dentist's chair." And then, finally, "Will you be writing your memoirs?"

       I made out that I hadn't heard. Did they know, I wondered, just how many times I had been asked the same thing by "screws" of every rank? The "zeks" (prisoners, or "cons" in Soviet prison slang -Tr.) very rarely enquired. More often they spoke about their own broken lives and would say in words heavy with significance: "Alik, memorize - it might come in useful”.

       And now here I am jumping onto the footboard of the train that's already moving, and Captain A. is helping me to throw onto the platform of the carriage my "siddor" - my bundle of personal things that had been taken from me when I was arrested and kept till my release. His words came to me: "Roald, I'm asking you as man to man – don't talk too much about what you've seen here”. That was all.

       And now here it was - my freedom. Through the windows I could see that brown semi-desert countryside. By all the canons I should now begin to ponder about all the significant things that had happened to me, or at least I should start forging my ideas. But my brain was still over there, behind the barbed wire; it was still the brain of a zek, limited by its closed surroundings, cautious, untrusting. I humped my "siddor" into the compartment, and after looking at my traveling companions - and I wasn't sure how they would react - I went to the conductor. “Is there a restaurant car?" "There is". "Is it open?” "Yep". "What's the food like?" "Listen, if you didn't die there, then this won't kill you”. True enough.

       Of course the Gebisti knew well enough what they were asking, and they knew quite well that I would write my account, the memoirs of a Soviet political prisoner. (So many of them have already been written and, I'm afraid, so many more will yet be written.) Simple decency towards the country where I was born demands that this be done, even though I don't look upon it as my motherland. It will be an account "for all and sundry". I feel that "for my own people" I'll have to write in another way, and about other things. An account, yes, but not that of a Soviet political prisoner of the era of Perestroika and Glasnost [1] but that of a Prisoner for Zion, picking out what was one way or another connected with the tragic history of the Jews in the USSR, a history that is still being written today. And perhaps later it will be possible to unite these two stories into one work.

       As a writer of memoirs, even of prison camp, I'm not very mature. It's all still too fresh. It's as Arik Einstein [2] sang: "Life has not yet completed its full circle, the flesh wounds have not yet healed. Perhaps it will remain thus forever, perhaps it needs a little more time ..." He released that record when he came out of hospital after a serious road accident. Yes, there is a resemblance...

       But one can't wait too long. Who knows what the future hold for me, for us. That's why I decided to write these notes, and not put it off any longer. I could follow the fashion and call them "Recollections ... (a journalistic variant)". I prefer quite simply - "Rough Notes".

       I'll start with a letter I sent to Mikhail Beizer:

       "4.4.86 Dear Misha,

       I am in hospital again. You couldn't think of a better time for writing. There is only one drawback. I haven't got your latest letter with me. So, first of all, I'm sending this to Galya's address as I don't remember yours, and secondly I'm not replying to most of the questions you asked. However I do remember one of them - about criminals' slang, the so-called "fenya". I'll start with that. So here goes: "fenya" in its old form is, without any doubt, dying out, although here in hospital I've come across people who can still remember it. Generally they are the "OORists" - the Specially Dangerous Recidivists (Osobo Opasniye Retsidivisti) who've been in jail for 20-50 years. They are called "Polosatiki"- "Old Stripeys", because they have to wear clothing that bears stripes, including even their caps. It's not just by accident that classical "fenya" is dying out. Like all cases of specialized slang, it served as a lingua-franca for a certain social group, in this case - the professional criminals, to make their speech unintelligible to outsiders and to facilitate mutual identification, i.e. acting as a kind of password. An indispensable condition for the existence of "fenya" was the availability of places where they could safely express themselves, for example, "malina" - "a criminals' den" (you may perhaps recall that the word "malina" comes from the Hebrew word "malon" meaning a lodging place, hotel).

       Whereas today a criminal , be he "professional" or "criminal", is concerned not so much with self-identification as with camouflage, should he want to stay at large for any length of time he must disguise himself to appear like an ordinary person. Otherwise, with modern methods of detection and investigation he'll "burn his fingers" in no time. There are no more "malinas", at least not in the old sense of the word. Of course where there is laid down any sort of hierarchical relationship, any sort of "division of labour" (for example: "thief - and fence (i.e buyer-up of stolen goods)"; or "prostitute - and ponce (i.e. supplier of girls)"; or "junkie (i.e. addict and user of drugs) - and pusher (or supplier of drugs)"; then there always arises some sort of suitable "fenya" or slang. But this is all very localized and therefore does not develop into proper slang. Generally in this case you are speaking about a few score or dozens of specialized words and expressions - but not more than that. In general terms that's how matters stand "outside" (i.e. outside of prisons and labour camps). But "inside"? Well, "inside" you can see a somewhat different picture: as, you might see a small group of young lads who are chasing after the romanticism of criminality (or even in search of some sort of "thieves' ideals") or are quite simply wanting to confirm their completely unromantic rule over the "grey mass" of the zeks, whom they call "oxen" or "cattle" - so they start to "shoot the lingo" (speak in argot). But this only produces a pitiful sort of impression -because they don't know the real "fenya"; recently, for example, I heard a young teenager (a sort of "thief with criminal rights") who said he was going outside "to warm himself with some balda". Someone had to explain to him that "the sun" or "sunshine" in camp slang was "baldokha" and that "balda", far from meaning sunshine, was the male genital organ, so his desire to "get warm with the balda" could be interpreted quite wrongly by all those within hearing. As a rule, the level of speech inside the "zone" is wretched in the extreme. All thoughts, feelings and desires are usually expressed by a few miserable swearwords and abusive phrases. It's true that one could point out a few successful and expressive turns of phrase, such as "to take a trip round his ears" - to charm someone, to talk his head off, to spin a long, fancy yarn; but you could count those on the fingers of your hand. And the majority of "zonal" words and expressions are localized, i.e. they are not used in all zones or all prisons and camps. In the Leningrad zones they call a girl "tyolka" - a "heifer", whereas up North in the Komi Republic it's "koza" - a "nanny-goat". In the Leningrad zones they often use the word "krutoi" - "steep" to mean strong, or firm, standing square on one's legs. Here it's not used in that way. The same can be said about "bludnyak" (lechery or fornication), used for an action which in prison-camp concepts is reprehensible or blameworthy, and might turn out badly for the perpetrator. And, you might ask, what place in this lexicon is occupied by words of Hebrew origin? Yery little. Only two words are beyond any doubt of this sort: "ksiva" (meaning "a forged or stolen document or passport”; or a "secret note" -Tr.) - coming from Hebrew "K'tiva" which in the old Ashkenazi pronunciation is "Kesivo"; and "khipezh" coming from the Hebrew root "kh-p-z" - to hurry, or perhaps from the Hebrew root "kh-p-s" - to search out. I am also convinced of the Hebrew origin of the camp slang word "nefilya" meaning the tea-dregs left in the pot after boiling up tea or "chifeer" (a strong narcotic brewed from tannin and caffein -Tr.). This is obviously from the root “n-f-l" - to fall, to fall-out. That's about the lot. (The author could also have mentioned "khevra" - a gang of criminals. This word comes directly from Hebrew, where it means simply "a group or company". The reverse has also happened where, for example, the word "balagan" - meaning a complete mess, a cock-up, chaos, has entered Hebrew everyday slang. –Tr). Mind you, "moosor" (rubbish, rats, coming from the Hebrew "mosair" - an informer, stool-pigeon) has been displaced by the word "ment" - a cop, a screw, a prison guard, but as late as the sixties it was still in general use. Do you remember Vissotsky?: "It was Sunday, but even on that day "the rats" don't rest. For them you've got to fulfill your job even if you hang yourself in the effort." In general much has changed. The folk-lore of the hardened professional criminals has almost disappeared; it couldn't stand up to the competition of the television. Even the style, the pattern and the content of tattooes are changing. Only very rarely can you see the classic "I'll never forget my dear Mother" (in Yerevan I once saw "I'll never forget my dear Auntie"). However quite frequently you come across Latin phrases, although often with mistakes. For example, MOMENTO MORE (a moment at sea) instead of MEMENTO MORI (remember that all must die). Also such things as GOTT MIT UNS (God is With Us) and similar nonsense. In general anything is acceptable that is "imported from abroad", or "foreign-made". They often pester me to translate into English some expression or other, but as a rule I refuse. The drawings on the tattooes have also become somewhat more refined. But let's get back to our subject of "fenya". We must not exclude its rebirth, to some extent, in connection with the appearance in larger towns of Mafia-like groups, a kind of racketeer gangs (you may perhaps have heard of the gang of Feka - Feoktistov - in Leningrad). There has been a sudden growth of so-called "Katrans" - private apartments where large-scale card games are organised. Not infrequently the "Katrans" have taken over the role of the one-time "malinas" - the criminals' dens - for the "mazhors" as the currency speculators now call themselves. Maybe this section of society has given birth to its own new "fenya", but I haven't come across it yet. From my observation these people are extremely pragmatic. They have no interest in romanticism because that pays no monetary dividends. Their linguistic interests lie in English and more especially in Finnish (particularly so in Leningrad and Tallin). They find a special attraction in narcotics, cards, and of course videos. The only thing they've borrowed from the old type of crooks is the desire to increase their sexual prowess in competition with others with the aid of plexyglass balls fixed into the penis. None of this resembles in any way the kings of old Odessa, about whom Isaac Babel wrote so eloquently, and although among them there are quite a number of Jews, I don't think that our language will have even the slightest influence over their ability to express themselves. I think that's all I can write to you on this subject in which you showed interest. I won't write about myself as Galya will fill you in completely in that respect.

       I look forward to your letters which I always find interesting. Regards to all and best wishes for the approaching festival of Pesach.

       Alik "

       Yes, Pesach was getting near, and was now only twenty days ahead. Of course I had no matzos. How could I get them across two rows of barbed wire fencing? But I had made up my mind that I would not eat any bread and had already written home about my decision. Of course in hospital it's easier than in the general camp zone: the food is better, you don't have to work and you're in the warmth all day. Nevertheless just like Solzhenitsyn's Ivan Denisovitch I understood that "I will be fasting" and that then "it will be difficult to revert to the accustomed style of living, neither quite starving, nor in any way replete".

       This hospital is in the medical zone in the village (posiolok) of Dezhnevo near Ukhta, and soon after I was admitted they brought in Valery Z., a "zek" from my zone, Nizhny Domanik [3] and even from my detachment. Valery, as a young lad from a small village in the Moscow region had been guilty of an inoffensive boyish prank, for which he had been sentenced by "the most humane court in the world" to 4 years imprisonment. He found life difficult in the labour camps. His gentle, open, ingenuous character was the direct opposite of what was needed in the zone for anyone who wants to secure for himself at least the minimum standard of convict living conditions. Suffice to say that he didn't stand a chance in the zone and he suffered his full measure of the uncontrolled malice of both screws and zeks. He was an avid reader whenever he had the opportunity to read. In their letters my friends often sent me poems, especially Sasha Zapesochny, Masha Kelbert, Rimma Zapesotskaya (and even my mother, may she rest in peace, included in one of her letters to the zone some verses by Chaim Nahman Bialik that she remembered from her childhood days in Gomel, the time of the Maccabean detachments, and, a little later, the Ferdinand Lassalle Jewish school). I gave some of these poems to Valery to read and he copied them down. And then on one occasion he read aloud to a group of zeks the poem by Ossip Mandelstam "I shall rush about along the dark street of a gypsy encampment". The crowd didn't like the verses - they "couldn't understand them". Coming under the influence of my "family relative" in Nizhny Domanik, the former leader of the well-knovn Christian Hock-group "Trumpet Call", Valery Barinov, who now lives in London, Valery Z. began to seek his way to God and, I hope, he will find it. He has now been released.

       Shortly before Pesach I told Valery (I can't remember in what connection) about the approaching festival and that during those eight days I was not allowed to eat bread. At this he said: "Why not let's try to make some of this matzo ourselves?" "Yes, but how?" "Weil I'm a cook by profession. All that I need is a stove and some flour. We can get flour from the "billy-goats" in the kitchen and they've also got a stove." (I must explain that the tern "billy-goats" is applied to those zeks who live not "in the accepted way", that is, either they are able to do things that are forbidden to the "regular" zeks, such as working in the living quarters zone, or in one way or another they collaborate with the screws. It is of interest to mention that the despised "cockerels", i.e. the passive pederasts, "the wanks", "the suckers" are not considered to be "billy-goats" for they are living inside the "system", although occupying in it a low, not-to-be envied position).

       It was clear that no-one was going to give us these things for a mere "thank-you" (all the more so as in the GULAG it is certainly not the done thing to say "thank-you". Gratitude can only be expressed in some oblique fashion. You could say "Cheers, mate" or in an extreme case "I won't forget", but NEVER "thank-you"). What was wanted was "brass tack", that is, something of substantial or material value with which to pay for the favour.

       The simplest thing of all was hard cash - and I had some. Not that legal, non-transferable money on your personal account that you use for payment at the prison "shop" or for subscription to newspapers but which you could never actually hold in your hand. No, real, live money, for the designation of which there are innumerable words such as "sponduliks", "lucre", and for the actual possession of which a zek faces the threat of "tryum" or "solitary" in the camp's internal prison. In what fashion I had got hold of it and in what way I had managed to keep it - that's a long story, which in spite of the fact that we are now in the dawn of "glasnost" I shall, for the time being, refrain from divulging. However I certainly did not want to pay the kitchen "billy-goats" with real hard cash. In that situation of absolute, total, mutual informing on each other for which the hospital zones are outstanding (all over the GULAG there are stool-pigeons and squealers, but in the hospital service where you are under observation the whole time, everyone squeals on everyone else with a 99% degree of certainty) the most probable outcome of such a "handover" would have been as follows: the goat would have taken the money, then "stuffed" (i.e. hidden) it, and then "squealed" into the ear of an "opper" (security operations officer) the "koom" (godfather), that there are rumours to the effect that Zelichonok, who's in for treatment, has got some "lolly" (cash). That way he'd be killing two birds with one stone. He'll have got "a pony" or "a trap" (that is five or ten roubles) and would have done a service for the "opper". I would have been sent to the "cooler" (solitary confinement cell) and the flour would quite naturally have stayed with the goat.

       Valery had a different idea. My wife Galya had sent me in a letter a Japanese 3-D (stereoscopic) postcard - with a picture of a girl speaking on the phone. If you look from one angle she's winking at you - and from another angle both eyes are wide open. That's how this attractive girl was transformed into a packet of flour. The first baking was a failure but the second time proved successful. In appearance this matzo looked like "matzo-shemura" but it was darker. I couldn't refrain from passing on the joyful news in a letter to my wife. I did it in this way: "I've just been given your telegram. I was so pleased I almost sat down on the hot matza". The screws took hardly any notice of this peculiar sentence but a prisoner's wife quickly learns to read between the lines. For her it was quite clear - I had some matzot and they'd not come "from outside" but had been baked in the zone ("hot").

       Did the "opper" know about it? Very likely he did as the watch on me was indefatigable. But they took no steps and did not take the matza away. Apparently in that spring of 1986 something in the general atmosphere was already on the move, and the screws, who had their keen noses to the wind, were expecting something ... Not long after came that evening early in May when my neighbour in the ward joyfully informed me: "Listen, they've broadcast on the radio. A Soviet nuclear power station has blown up". "Sosnovy-Bor?" I asked, going cold inside. (Sosnovy-Bor is a small town not far from Leningrad on the Gulf of Finland -Tr.). "No, somewhere else - Cherno -, Chernay -, something like that, I couldn't quite get the name" he said.

       None of us at the time realised the full significance of what had occurred. My thoughts were occupied with other things. I already knew that Galya was trying to get approval for my transfer from the Komi SSR to Kazakhstan on health grounds and my apprehension did not leave me. No, I had no fear of the Kazakhs or other national minorities. On the contrary I had a very good friend in the zone, -a Kazakh, an engineer who had murdered his wife's lover. It was from him that I learned about the tragic national problem of the Kazakhs, who had been transformed into a minority on their own land. He used to tell me that his father advised him to study the Jews and to follow their example so as to find the way to national self-preservation. He was pleased for me when he heard about my forthcoming transfer. I myself realised that this was my sole chance of survival, to overcome the hypertonia that was smothering me, and that had been getting worse in the terrible climate of the Komi Republic (in the Far North, just outside the Arctic Circle -Tr.). But I also understood something else: that before me there also lay the "étape". And at the very mention of that word "étape", even the most hardened old lags blanched and swallowed hard [4] . These old zeks, the OORists (see previous note page 3) estimated what my route would probably be: at first Kirov, then Sverdlovsk. Then it might be Novosibirsk or Petropavlovsk-Kazakhsky, depending on which camp I was being taken to, for Kazakhstan is very large. They advised me to take great care in Sverdlovsk: "It's a bad prison one of the worst transit prisons in the whole country".

       They didn't know that even without their warnings, at the very mention of the name "Sverdlovsk" I was seized with the most gloomy forebodings. In 1981 a search had been carried out in our flat in Leningrad at the behest of the Sverdlovsk Procurator in the case of Yelchin and Sheffer who had been accused under Article 70 [5] . In the words of the official of the Procurator's Office who interrogated me, they were trying to set up in Sverdlovsk either an Ivrit Ulpan (classes for the study of Hebrew language) or a Jewish history study circle. They confiscated from us a sackful of libellious literature: children's songs in Hebrew, Jewish calendars, tables of the conjugation of Hebrew verbs, tales by Korolenko translated into Hebrew, a "Shalom" prayer book of the Moscow Synagogue, books by Chaim Potok, Saul Bellow, Isaac Bashevis-Singer and even … "Tales of Sherlock Holmes" by Conan-Doyle. (Chaim Potok's book "In the Beginning" was considered by the Sverdlovsk KGB to be "anti-Soviet" according to their Official Record of December, 1981, because ... it contains mention of pogroms in Tsarist Russia and Poland! Other books were classified according to the same principles. After a long battle I was able to get the books returned to me late in 1987 only after I had come out of prison, apart from Saul Bellow's "To Jerusalem and Back", - "because in it there is an interview with the criminal Edward Kuznetsov", and Hedrick Smith's "The Russians" - "Well, you yourself will understand why ..."). They tried to interrogate us, but Galya and I refused and Captain Filatov of the Sverdlovsk KGB declared: "You will have cause to regret this". In June 1986 I was convinced that they had long memories.

Part 2==>