Some Rough Notes of a Prisoner for Zion

Part 3

by Roald Zelichonok

       However, to go back, I must remark that Marlborough was the first of the very few Jews whom I met during my enforced wanderings around this great archipelago. The second was Borya Ressel and I quote his name without any alteration because he recently figured in an article in the magazine "Ogonyok". He was interviewed for an article on Soviet organised crime. He really knew a very great deal on this subject and discussions with him on this subject were quite instructive, although he himself was a master-key of only medium grade, with his "work-place" at the gallery of Gostinny Dvor and in the subway nearby called colloquially "Tripper Terrace". As I understood it, a necessary condition of his activity was a mutual "understanding" with the police, but they cheated him, he didn't have sufficient sense to keep quiet about it, the mutual "understanding" was broken and he landed up in Kresty. Previous to his arrest Borya lived on Kutuzov Naberezhnaya (Embankment) and in his case the old joke was literally true: "I used to live opposite the prison, but now I live opposite my home".

       Borya was painfully fat and I was terrified to think what would happen to him in the camps in the Leningrad area where, by all accounts anti-Semitism was rampant. However I need not have worried; Borya was "hail-fellow-well-met" with everybody he came across; he quickly and easily settled into life in Cell No. 304 and no conflicts arose round him.

       Lyosha K. who was with me in the Kresty punishment cell for two prisoners during the Moscow Festival for Youth and Students, was registered on his internal passport (identity card) as Russian, but on his mother's side he was Rozenstein or Zilbershneer or something of the sort. He landed up in the punishment "cooler" because of a game of cards, and I was there for having played "their" game as I have related above. (In the official document regarding my transfer to the punishment cell it was stated - "for an attempt at illegal correspondence". Some fine attempt! They legally arranged the closure of that channel and at the same time vented their spite on me on their own personal account. A detailed narrative of all the attendant circumstances and events of those days in August 1985 leading up to the trial does not come into the framework of these notes.) Out of his thirty or so years Lyosha had already spent 14 years behind bars. His speciality was as a dealer in foreign currency. He could quite well become a star of the world of criminality or, if he had chosen another path in life, the representative of some romantic profession, but alas ... a reasonable, sensible, cool and composed person when sober, he lost all these qualities after a glass or two of vodka.

       On the last occasion Lyosha spent only a few months in freedom. That spring evening he had had a glass or two and went out of his home, dressed just as he was. Unfortunately not far away he saw a group of young fellows having a fight with a Swedish seaman. All his previous experience warned him to keep away, be he could not. At that very moment a police patrol arrived. When they grabbed him he protested "Where are you taking me half-undressed like this? At least let me go home and get a jacket - I live just here". And - most rare bad luck - a tender-hearted cop went with him to his home and Lyosha put on his jacket. A few minutes later and he was being frisked in the police station where an astonished sergeant of police took out of the jacket pocket a bundle of U.S. dollars and a packet of Finnish marks. This rare bird was lodged in the KPZ (pretrial detention cell) on my "native" No.1 Police Division. This was just about one month before I was lodged in there. And within a few days he had escaped from there. He escaped beautifully simply, like a true artist - he didn't run away, but just walked out. He then found himself in an illegal situation. He took cover in the apartment of a girl friend, and went out only in order to quench his thirst. Then he got involved in a drunken fight at a bar on Ploshchad Mira and was arrested. He had no identity papers and the tales he told did not help matters. Still unidentified he was put in the special detention centre on ulitsa Bakunina. This is worse than a KPZ or prison. The detainees are fed only once a day, smoking is forbidden, there is no exercise, it is very dark. And you can't escape. Even the "tsirik" (warder) who sits in front of the cells can leave there only if he is accompanied by another tsirik and they have to unlock several steel doors protected by combination locks. But Lyosha began feverishly to make plans to escape. He soon learnt that they had identified him, and realised that his hours were limited.

       A detailed account of his incredible escape is beyond the scope of this narrative, but in brief: Lyosha feigned an attack of appendicitis and was moved, in handcuffs, and under escort, to the reception ward of the Erisman Hospital. There, with one leap, he jumped out of a first storey window and, in spite of breaking his ankle as he fell, and in spite of the handcuffs, he managed to elude his pursuers in the dark and made his way to one of his friends. There the handcuffs were removed and they fetched a doctor. He rested up and licked his wounds, until his pals decided it was time to move him to a safer hide-out. On the road they had a few drinks and it was then that his "alter ego" popped out and insisted that they go to his home to get some things and some money. And although his "real self" and common sense told him not to go - they went. And there they found a police ambush waiting for him...

       Being with Lyosha proved to be quite helpful to me. In our conversations time passed more quickly than otherwise, for "inside" time crawls unbearably slowly. But, most important, he was the first who informed me, from personal experience, of all the aspects of life in the camp-zone. This information very quickly came in most useful, although it did not prevent me from making many mistakes. These are unavoidable when you land up in the great unknown archipelago. I would add that our talks were of interest for both parties. As happens with Jews we found we had acquaintances in common. I told him that one of them had emigrated and this took him quite by surprise.

       I can mention another Jewish zek - a doctor from Moscow who was working at his profession in the hospital zone. He was in for accepting bribes and while in prison camp he suffered a heart attack. He left the impression of being a man who was broken both physically and spiritually. In the same camp I saw another Jew -an OORist (a Specially Dangerous Recidivist), a thief by the nickname of Lemon (apparently from the sickly yellow colour of his face). It was said that this old fellow had been "inside" for almost 40 years. He was soon taken away so I didn't manage to talk to him.

       I cannot refrain from mentioning yet another Jew - a deputy political officer in Nizhny Domanik. I did not suffer any harm at his hands - which is the best that can be said of any screw. But as for help, what help can you expect from a dep.polit. and especially in the camp-zone.

       In the hospital of the Alma-Ata prison I made the acquaintance of yet another Jew with officer's epaulette. I was taken into a room where an officer was sitting, wearing the shoulder boards of a colonel of the medical corps. He introduced himself as a psychiatrist who had been given the task of talking to me within the framework of general medical examination. I hoped that my face did not betray the whole gamut of my feelings as the thoughts coursed through my brain. During the whole time of the two-month journey on the étape from Komi to Kazakhstan, many zeks, on learning that I was a political prisoner, expressed their opinion that I was being transported to a psychiatric hospital. A great deal is spoken in the GULAG about the use of psychiatric hospitals as the favourite weapon of the "red-bellies" against "politicals". And although I realised that in the summer of 1986 this was not very likely, the thoughts chased each other through my head … The colonel tried to tell me a joke in Yiddish, then showed interest in my case and asked about my nocturnal and daytime nightmares, and enquired if there was any alcoholism, venereal disease or madness in my family. I rather rudely replied that I was not at all happy about this interview, especially in view of the worldwide reputation of the notorious Academician Dr. Snezhnevsky. The colonel assured me that he would find it "impossible" to declare a healthy person to be insane". He then stood up, opened the door of the neighbouring room and yelled "Healthy" - apparently to someone who had been sitting there listening!? - and off he went.

       That was the sum total of my important "Jewish contacts" during my period of imprisonment - apart from the refuseniks who accompanied Galya on her long journeys to visit me, and without whose help she would have found it very difficult because of her blindness. Occasionally I managed to see them. Thus, I saw Senya Borovinsky, Aba Taratuta, Leonid Kelbert, Mark Budnyatsky, Ilya Simovsky. And of course Volodya Lifshitz, my friend and colleague. Our fantastic, unbelievable meeting after I had been beaten up in the Sverdlovsk transit prison was a reminder that truth is sometimes stranger than fiction. This is not the place to describe it in detail, especially as Volodya has written about it briefly.

       And there was also my friend Valery Barinov, my former "family relative" [20] , the "Rock-Baptist", sentenced to 2.5 years for attempting (!) to leave the country illegally. I can visualize our meeting as if it took place only a moment ago. We were sitting on a bench in the barrack-hut of No.10 Section. Valery had just returned there after a six-month's stretch in the PKT - the internal camp prison. "Are you a Jew?" - he asked me. "Yes". "Me, too". "How come?" "I'm a Jew because the God of Israel, the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob is my God. Listen, I've had a revelation: I shall soon be released from here and I shall go to England. But the first country I shall go to when I leave here will be Israel". And I bear witness that that is what did happen. Not long ago Valery phoned me from Jerusalem and from London.

       What part did my Jewishness play in my relationship with the other zeks? I must say that, in contrast to Volodya Lifshitz, I did not come up against aggressive anti-Semitism. I assume that this is partly due to the fact that the camp-zones I was in were located in multi-national areas where no one national group predominated. But mostly it was because both the Komi and the Kazakhstan republics are a truly international entities, not even islands but a continental mainland of the GULAG Archipelago. These lands are inhabited by the descendants of the zeks of Stalin's time and later times. These are lands where people are brought in Stolypin carriages from all over this vast country, where people come out of the innumerable camp-zones and settle down not far from them, marry, and have children who then themselves land up in the self-same camps. These are lands where entire nations have been sent into exile. Here also Melnikov, the leader of the Komi Communist Party protested at the last Party Conference against his country being transformed into a prison. In that miserable, restless international there is no understanding of "my own"', therefore there is no appreciation of what is meant by "foreign".

       Of course they "work on the people" and this work does bear some fruit. Both in the extreme North and in the extreme South the zeks know, God alone knows how, about those two "politicals" - Sakharov and Shcharansky. Information about them is surprisingly standardized and bears a clear mark of Cain, which indicates the source of their origin. Regarding Sakharov it is "known" that his real name is Tzukerman (Sakhar is Russian for sugar, which in German and Yiddish is Zucker -Tr.) and that he received millions of dollars for his work on behalf of the C.I.A. And about Shcharansky - that he went on hunger-strike in prison because they did not give him sufficient hot coffee! That's the lot - and there are no variations. I can well understand the logic of the people who thought this up: it stands to reason that in the depths of the "socially conscious" Soviet citizen, even one who has committed a crime and is temporarily isolated from society, there must surge up a wave of anger and resentment against the Tzukermans who sell their motherland for dollars, and the Shcharanskys who even in prison can drink coffee - not like your poor old genuine Russian Ivan. I must confess that even I at first followed this logic and, when I heard this old-wives' tale for the first time (and I was fated to hear it over and over again!) I rushed to defend the honour of Andrei Dmitriyevitch (Sakharov -Tr.) and Natan (Shcharansky -Tr.). But I soon realized that my well-meant action was having the opposite effect. For the logic of today's zek does not conform to the pattern programmed by its composers. The usual reaction was roughly as follows: "Well, you can understand it. An Academician and moreover a Jew - they don't burn their fingers for mere trifles. And if I could sell something to the C.I.A. would I go about stealing like a common thief? And Shcharansky is as tough as a hammer. For us - they can piss in our mouths and we don't say a word. But a Jew…? He wants coffee and he gets it". I did come across some zeks with a more "correct" reaction, but there were very few of them.

       I not infrequently encountered some interest in my Jewish nationality. I can confirm Volodya Lifshitz's observation: I was more than once confronted with the question: "Why did Hitler kill your people?" In reply I explained that politics is like prison life. "If you want to climb the ladder yourself, you've got to push someone else off" - which is a golden rule in the labour camps. Hitler wanted to rise, and it had to be at someone else's expense, and there was no one apart from the Jews to throw down; there were no the significant national minorities in Germany. Every zek understood this argument. Sometimes they wanted to probe a little deeper and I would then tell them about the age-old tradition of exploiting the Jews as scapegoats and I gave examples of other minorities in various countries.

       While still on this subject it is worth mentioning that Hitler is quite a popular figure among some of the zeks. There are two reasons for this, neither of which has any connection with anti-Semitism.

       In the first place Hitler is considered to be the chief enemy of the hated "red-bellies" - the Soviets. A popular saying is "Wake up Adolph, the screws are on the prowl". My attempts to spread anti-Hitler propaganda were generally doomed to failure. One of the work-gang leaders once said to me: "I can understand that you don't like Hitler - he killed Jews. Well he had a bee in his bonnet. But you must admit that as for the rest he was just what the doctor ordered. Look how many communists he killed!" To which my answer was: "Even there I can't approve of Hitler. He killed communists not for the evil in them but for the good there is in them". And having said that, I feverishly thought to myself - what if he asks me what good there is in communists? What shall I reply? Fortunately, however, he didn't ask but merely threw back at me: I really can't understand why they put you in jail".

       Secondly, the psychology of the zek, tormented as he is by the life in the camp which drags so heavily and so monotonously and dully in spite of all its cruelty, is such that he gropes for the unusual, for anything out of the ordinary, in the same way as his stomach yearns for a piece of herring, for a pinch of pepper to add some seasoning to the accursed "Balanda" - the thin, watery, tasteless gruel served up every day. This groping takes on various forms. On one occasion, sitting in a halting-stop during the long étape journey, I expressed aloud my doubts as to the existence of the Bermuda Triangle. The others rounded on me in anger and with insults. If you can tell tales about werewolves, extra-terrestrials, vampires, treasure-seekers, they will surround you and clamour for you to talk without end. This accounts for the popularity of Hitler, Nazi symbols and all the other paraphernalia and rubbish. The dock where I was placed in Room No. 54 of the Leningrad Municipal Court was decorated with slogans like "Heil Hitler" and "Gott mit Uns" scratched in German with many mistakes. Many wore on their shoulders a shoulder-strap with the letters "SS" marked on them. I came across young lads who called themselves Nazis or supporters of Hitler. The Jewish question was of no interest to them. They were simply a rare variety of riff-raff who are unable to commit a robbery or an assault without some kind of ideological "face-saving" support.

       Anti-Israel propaganda has apparently penetrated deep under the skin of the ordinary Soviet person, has reached right through to his spinal column, but it appears to have made very little headway on my "colleagues inside" the prisons and camps. There is, for example, the case of a certain Fokin, a Candidat of Technical Sciences, former secretary of the reception committee at the Leningrad Institute of the Precise Mechanics and Optics, who was sentenced to 15 years for large-scale bribery. When he was led out of the court at the conclusion of his trial he screamed so that his voice rang throughout the Kresty Prison "I'm not guilty, I've been framed by the Israeli Secret Service" in response to which the inmates of every cell simply howled with laughter.

       But among the authorities it's a different kettle of fish. It would be appropriate here to tell the story of a Leningrad worker, whom we shall call X, a Russian, with whom I became acquainted after we had been sentenced. He was put inside for forging documents as well as for something else, I can't remember what. For most of his life he had lived "like everybody else", but unfortunately he had married the daughter of some high-up police official. After only a short while the young couple divorced and X demanded a share of the apartment. And then strange things started happening to him, such as being arrested in the most unexpected places, and on the most extraordinary pretexts. When things got really bad his friends advised him to disappear - "to keep out of harm's way". So, arming himself with forged papers, X made his way to Nikolayev where he got a job in government factory. But he failed to take into account the certainty that when he applied for a security pass they would check his papers. The forgery came to light, X was arrested, and seriously beaten up. When I asked why, I got the surprising answer: "They were trying to get me to confess that I was working for Israeli Intelligence". And this took place not during Stalin's time, not in the period of stagnation (i.e. during Brezhnev's rule -Tr.). In the outside world - Perestroika was the order of the day.

       My fears that on the long journey to Kazakhstan my future Moslem "colleagues" might "take it out on me" on account of events in the Middle East were not fully realized. The psychology of these people gives them a leaning towards strength - Might is Right! The Weakest goes to the Wall! In their eyes the Arabs are bringing shame down on Islam, since for so many years they have been suffering defeats. From the same point of view they also accept ... the "blood libel". And this caused me considerable surprise. Many of them believe that the Jews use human blood in preparing their food. But their acceptance of this "fact" would hardly give antisemitic propagandists cause to rejoice: "Of course, I don't blame them, since human blood is the most healthy of all foods. And we would use it but we are not brave enough. However the Jews - if they need it, they use it. That's the way to live". Of course I tried to convince them otherwise. They listened politely, but it was obvious that they didn't believe me. But if I did have any success it was in countering the fable about Jewish cannibalism. They told me the local popular myth about a group of Jewish private traders in Tashkent who had killed about a dozen people and used their flesh to make meat-pies, which they had then sold and lived on the proceeds. They had been caught and executed. Well, it was not difficult to dispose of that folklore invention. I made a quick calculation of how much profit they could have made out of that mincemeat business. At the most it worked out at 100 roubles per person. "And do you really think that a Jew would stick his neck out for that paltry sum? For a million I dare say he might - but not for a measly hundred!". This seemed to convince them as they had no doubts about Jewish shrewdness as I knew well. But one thing I didn't know - and don't know - where that legend of the meat-pies had sprung from. I wondered if it came from the same source as the fairy tale about Sakharov being a C.I.A. agent and Shcharansky being a coffee lover. One way or another I saw no evidence of any threats against the lives of Jews living in Kazakhstan (nor against Russians in spite of the well publicised Alma-Ata disorders). If the local Moslems will start cutting anyone's throats it will most likely be each other's. Hostility was noticeable between local people and even clans of the self-same people. Already during the very first days after my arrival in Turkestan I was warned by an Uzbek: "Watch out for the Kazakhs, they're a real lot." I didn't at first understand that by "a real lot", he meant "a nasty lot". And the first "joke" I heard in my new camp was told by a Kazakh with the nickname of Cockroach: "Why are there no Uzbek cosmonauts out in space? Because there'd be nothing for them to do there - there are no bazaars out in space".

       I won't conceal that the next "joke" I heard was told to me by friend - a Kazakh: "When a Jew buys a chicken, why does he look at it from behind? Because the Jews have eaten so many chickens that they are ashamed to look it in the eye". This might now, in all fairness, apply to that very same friend of mine, after the number of times that I shared with him a bowl of chicken soup made from cubes of the Israeli products "Telma" and "Osem" [21] ! Soon after my release I got a postcard from him, written in the camp, which arrived exactly on the festival of Tu-Bishvat: "Best wishes to you on the New Year for Trees". (I had left my Hebrew calendar with him).

       I made quite a few friends - Kazakhs, Uzbeks, and other nationalities in that barbed-wire-fenced-off piece of oasis, squeezed between two great desert wastes, and next to the heavenly-cupolaed tomb of the saintly Ahmed Yasavy erected by Timmur the Lame, not far from a group of trees. Pointing to it the members of our work-gang would say: "Can you see it? That's a Jewish cemetery".

       Not long before I was released the Korean Sanya Kim asked me: "That Judaism of yours, to which is it closer - Islam or Christianity?" I replied: "I think to Christianity". (From the theological point of view I was probably wrong, but I had in mind a "literary" and "emotional" closeness.) This was followed by the most unexpected question: "How is it then that here, all your closest friends are Moslems?" I didn't know what answer to give and to this day I don't know. It just happened that way.

       Still, I am sure that my "colleagues" were always aware that I belonged to some sort of not-quite-ordinary tribe. And when I wouldn't let them switch over the T.V.programme from "Tevya the Milkman" (the original story from which "Fiddler on the Roof" was taken -Tr.) to their favourite cartoon film, they all appreciated how I felt. And in Turkestan after there had been on T.V. an interesting American film on the life in the USA of emigrants from the USSR (with an accompanying very unhelpful, pathetic commentary by G. Borovik), many of them asked me if I had seen it.

       I think that in most cases their ideas on Jews spring from well-worn clichés, but it is only fair to remark that not all these clichés are of a negative type, especially as viewed by a zek. One such is that Jews stand by each other and in troubles they don't desert their own. This was at any rate the way they looked upon the support and attention lavished on me by friends, by relatives and by my wife. So often I was told: "You're alright, your people don't desert you. Not like us - we've no motherland, no flag". My friends among the zeks in Domanik were able to pass a message to me when I was in hospital: "We heard 'The Voice of Israel' on the radio, they mentioned you". I had had no idea that they even possessed a radio receiver, and to this day I don't know where they kept it hidden. One can imagine just how exceptional they considered the very fact that there had been such a broadcast, if they decided to risk the danger of their conspiracy being exposed.

       Galya rushed down to Turkestan and arrived only three days after my own arrival there. Then I was told that at that very time a wedding was taking place in the nearby village and many of the camp screws were invited. During the wedding feast they gathered in one of the rooms specially to discuss the staggering news that the camp had a new inmate - a Jew from Leningrad, and he'd hardly had time to get off the étape train before his wife was also there to visit him! What amazed them most of all was how she had got to know that I was in Turkestan; obviously there had not been time enough for a letter to reach her! They decided that it was some Jewish method not available to Moslems.

       I have come to the end of these notes. To write them I have relied entirely on my memory which, alas, is no longer as good as it was. Much more on the subject could be gleaned from letters; my letters from there, which have been kept by my wife and friends, such as the one I have quoted earlier (to Mikhail Beizer); and those sent to me - I have kept all that did reach me. That work still remains to be done. So far it won't take shape, for I have only to delve into these sheets of paper and I'm again back there, at night, in Domanik, in the hut, barely illuminated by the flickering light of the fluorescent lamp. The zeks, about 150 men, are asleep in the two-tiered bunks and their breath is spreading moisture in the cold, damp air of the hut. Quietly, hardly moving on an upper bunk someone is mumbling and tapping in rhythm on his belly, either imagining some pop group, or sobbing. A "wank" that was beaten up last evening moans in his sleep. Across the floor, rats, large ones and smaller ones are scurrying to and fro. From outside can be heard the endless, doleful singing of an Uzbek soldier, numb with the cold, up there in the watch-tower, and beyond, in the outer-zone area, the Alsatian guard dogs are howling and whimpering from the cold and from boredom.

       There, on the outside, it's 40 centigrade below zero, and the wind is tearing through the numberless posters bearing extracts from the speeches of Lenin, Gorky, Gorbachev, and quotations from Party resolutions and decrees of the Supreme Soviet. Soon it will be reveille and that very same wind will be tearing through you while lining up for breakfast, and standing in formation for morning roll-call, and for being sent out to work.

       Igor Guberman (Garik), as we parted, said to me: "You will not have been liberated until you put it down in writing. Look upon it as having been a creative job of work for which you are duty bound to write a detailed report".

       I promised I would write.

Summer 1988

<== Part 2