Alexander Solzhenitsyn as Gulag inmate
The title is totally misleading and not at all misleading. First, my apologies to all those who actually lived under communism, because I only lived for in the USSR for a little while (three years). So these are vignettes from a life under the shadow of Marx and Stalin from someone who was free to leave at will.
It was early-1980s Leningrad, as St. Petersburg was known under communism, practically on the doorstep of the collapse of the Soviet Union, but so deep in the slough of communism that nobody would have considered it possible that a monumental change was in the offing. Bustling Moscow, where my then-future husband was serving at the same time, had a reasonable KGB to foreigner ratio. In the backwater of the one-time capital of the Russian Empire, the ratio was out of sight, more than 10-1. Still, it didn’t matter if you had five KGB thugs in black leather jackets dogging your footsteps or fifty. They always got what they wanted in the Soviet Union.
Today’s vignette (for I hope to add one every so often) involves a brave man or a fool, depending on your point of view, and a foolhardy American (yours truly) trying to evade the KGB long enough to get the truth out.
At the time of these events, perhaps it was 1984. (Oh, yes! I have a photo of a Russian tv screen that notable New Year’s Eve in Leningrad. Across a black background in stark white letters was only the year, 1984). This was a time when the struggling powers-that-be in the Soviet Union (struggling more than we knew) were dealing with the fall-out from Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn’s long-distance activism in Russia through The Solzhenitsyn Fund. I knew little about the organization beyond its fundamental purpose, to assist political prisoners and their families in the Soviet Union. But the Soviet authorities knew all about the group and its members and in 1983-1984 the first of the show trials for those who aided the cause began. While the Moscow head of the organization was in the dock, the KGB set up and arrested the Leningrad head. In preparation for the public spectacle, the Soviets aired via the state media the lie that the US Consulate in Leningrad had used the sacrosanct diplomatic pouch (once just a leather mail pouch and today bales and bales of diplomatic mail) to smuggle prohibited copies of the Gulag Archipelago into the USSR. It thus came to be that my superior officer, the Consul General, asked me to attend the public trial and to report to Washington on what the accusations were.
I showed up at the trial in my Chrysler K-car, a disastrous buy made to support the US auto workers (I, the conservative) and parked it on the street amid a handful of tiny beat-up Soviet cars, the ubiquitous Ladas. I went with the Consulate Regional Security Officer, who spoke only rudimentary Russian, so the burden was on me to report accurately on the proceedings. As we sat cooling our heels waiting for the show to get going, I observed our fellow attendees. They were all clearly dissidents, many Jews, long hair, dirty clothes, deliberately provocative to the authorities. For my part, I sat as quiet as a mouse, hoping to escape detection. No doubt the officials there saw me and said “Georgian,” since the Georgians said the same. In any event, I was unmolested as long as there was nothing to do but sit with my mouth shut.
Finally, an officious man came into the room and told everybody to line up to pass into the courtroom. I watched with growing anxiety as everybody was searched (no doubt for the weapons nobody could have). When it came my turn, the man told me to leave the purse and get it back when I was leaving.
I wasn’t born yesterday.
“Here,” I said. “Take the purse, I’ll hold the id.” That was it. The man went off to speak to someone and then there appeared a bigger cheese to deal with me.
“You have to leave,” he told me, all those dissidents watching with avid interest. Resistance!
“Why do I have to leave?” I asked. “The papers said it was a public trial, it didn’t say only Russian citizens, so here I am. Why am I prohibited from attending?”
“Oh,” he replied with an easy smile, “you are not prohibited from attending. It’s just that it is impossible.”
This was life in the Soviet Union.
And so I left, annoyed beyond expression. My friend, meanwhile, who spoke only pidgen Russian, was left behind because he carried no purse. I went to my K-car and circled the block endlessly, vowing to wait until one of the dissident attendees exited to find out what I wanted to know. I must have circled a thousand times before my colleague showed up, having been ejected at the mid-day break — just because it was impossible that he be there. He then circled with me in the big American car, the cynosure of all eyes, for ten, then twenty minutes, then an hour and another. At last I saw people, the very same grubby people I had seen in the court waiting room. As I looked for a likely one to accost, another man walked up to my car and leaned in the window.
“Are you here about the trial?” he asked.
It was as if the Great Kreske had spoken. “How did you know that?” I stupidly asked.
“You’re driving around and around in this big American car, it’s like some act of provocation. Do you want to know what happened in there?” he asked.
“Yes,” I said, “do you want a ride somewhere?”
“Sure,” he replied. But as he started to get in, the man who had thrown me out of the trial came striding up to him. “You are in big enough trouble,” he said, not unkindly. “Don’t get in the car.”
The man, my savior, just looked at him with contempt and got in the car, watching the other man walk away angrily. This would look bad for the Enforcer, too.
We headed off to the man’s home, me driving and Mityashin directing. All the way we were followed by the KGB, one car peeling off as the next one took its place. Finally we arrived at Mityashin’s humble abode; it was not in a classy part of town, but at least it was not out in the boondocks of the vast city. His building was as rundown and smelly as all the others in the USSR. Vagrants and alcoholics, usually one and the same, would go into the entryways at night and urinate, so the residents lived with the results. Mityashin lived in a cubicle no bigger than a pantry and it was located smack-dab inside somebody else’s cubicle. (I know something about those cubicles; my husband and I own a Moscow apartment in the Central District that once housed twelve cubicles and one cubicle-within-cubicle.)
In that small space, over tea sweetened with jam, Boris Mityashin explained to me what is was like to be a rebel in the land of communism. In my next post, I will tell his story — so we remember the past and are not condemned to relive it.
On that summer day in Leningrad my colleague and I sat in Mityashin’s tiny hot room drinking tea and listening with fascination to his story. His life consisted of injustices the average American could hardly conceive of, but that were commonplace in the totalitarian paradise of the Soviet Union. It was a place where you dare not express your view openly on anything other than sports, because it was frowned upon, if not outright prohibited. Everything he had in the world was in that cubbyhole and most of those possessions were books. The size of his accommodations spoke eloquently to his standing with the authorities and was testimony to life under socialism cum communism.
Mityashin gave us a synopsis of the day’s trial, which consisted of the prosecutor presenting the charges against the defendant. One of the key charges was conspiring with the US Consulate to smuggle in prohibited literature for distribution to the public. The State’s case was coming together quite well. The head of the Fund was already in prison and the KGB had warned his wife that if she did not give them the information they wanted, they would put her and her children in the forced labor camps. She was the weak link in the chain and Mityashin did not expect her to hold much longer. When that happened, he too would be arrested and get another visit to the labor camps. He wanted to talk and he did not have much time, so he began from the beginning.
Mityashin was 18 years old in 1968 when the Prague Spring was crushed by Soviet tanks. Until then, his life had been unremarkable, just a smart Russian boy growing up in the only sort of system he knew. The invasion of Soviet troops into Prague shocked and angered him, and he joined other students in an entirely peaceful protest of the action. Of course they were all arrested. Mityashin was given a three year sentence in the Gulag, and there he had his eyes opened about the reality of Soviet repression and life in the labor camps. After his release he was deprived of the right to attend university or any other sort of training institute. He was condemned to a life without the higher education he had taken for granted, without a decent job (or even a legal one), and without respect in society. He found unofficial work in the grey market, that place where so much economic activity occurred in the Soviet Union. He worked as a night guard at some factory. At 34, he had no wife and no children.
Mityashin said the life suited him. Nothing ever happened at the factory and he was free to read all he liked. He had educated himself in those long quiet nights with nobody around to snoop or report on him. Now he was an expert in philosophical dualism and ecology. (On the latter subject, Mityashin was disgusted — he accused the communists of criminal incompetence for squandering and polluting Russia’s abundant natural resources and destroying the country’s ecology. He was right.)
Mityashin heard about the Solzhenitsyn Fund through the rumor mill and perhaps more likely, though he did not say so, through a friend. He decided this was an excellent cause, he wanted to help people held in the Soviet Union’s vast network of prison camps, the infamousGulag. But it was high-risk. You obviously could not ask for references from somebody willing to undertake the kind of dangerous work that the Fund needed them to do. So there were plenty of shady characters working with the Fund and the KGB had long ago infiltrated their own moles, collecting information on the top activists and the volunteers. The information would be deployed when the time came for a public trial that would send a message to other would-be dissidents. Maintaining contact with the families of political prisoners or the prisoners themselves was nothing to be done lightly. It could easily be labeled treasonous and that is how the Soviet authorities saw it.
(Google “Solzhenitsyn Fund to Aid Soviet Union Dissidents” for an example of how the public leaders of the Fund and the clandestine workers were hounded out of the country or imprisoned. http://news.google.com/newspapers?id=zQdlAAAAIBAJ&sjid=5HkNAAAAIBAJ&pg=6097%2C4986812)
The Fund basically provided minimal subsistence support to the prisoners and their families. The families needed the help as badly as did the prisoners, as they were considered in some way equally as guilty as their imprisoned relatives. The family members often lost their jobs in the official economy and faced other deprivations. There was no mercy even for the children of such prisoners, who would be shunned at school. If the Fund could offer a string basket with the necessities plus a sausage, some tea and sugar, maybe a bottle of cognac — it would be gratefully accepted by the recipients.
Mityashin pulled out from between some of the many books he had in his room a postcard with a woman’s picture on the front. She had been imprisoned for many years, he said, first falling into the hands of the Soviets during WWII. She was only sixteen, living in that multi-ethnic swath of Poland that changed hands more than once in history. She was a girlfriend of one of the Polish partisans fighting Germany. When the Russians occupied that part of Poland, the partisans fought them, as well. They were all eventually arrested and then the authorities went for the associates of the partisans. This middle-aged woman, then only a girl, was arrested and had been imprisoned in the Gulag ever since. There was one brief reprieve: she was released under Nikita Khrushchev as part of his liberalization in the post-Stalin era. However, she was almost immediately re-arrested for poetry she had written on scraps of paper that they found in her cell. Only very recently had she been released into internal exile. Usually this was a looser form of supervision in some Godforsaken wilderness. And what she wrote was this: “thank you for the warm jacket you sent me, I needed one — it is even colder here in this place than it was in the camps.”
I invited Mityashin to come to my house for dinner at the week’s end so we could continue our discussion. He agreed. Before we left, he went to his window and looked out. “There, look; there are several KGB cars waiting for you.” Nevertheless, he walked us out to our car, leaving with a promise to be at my apartment in a few days’ time.
It turned out he did not have as much time as that. In the next part, I will tell you the rest of his story and what happened to him.
The day after I spoke with Boris Mityashin at his place and agreed to meet again later that week, I heard from him again. Now his voice was extremely tense and his tone urgent. He said he needed to see me as soon as possible because the KGB was about to arrest him. I agreed and he came to my apartment at about five in the evening. It was the long white nights in Leningrad and broad daylight still when he arrived, and I know that I, for one, was worried that a KGB agent would appear out of the stairwell to whisk Mityashin away. They did not, their plan was a little different.
The first thing Mityashin did was ask if my phone was plugged in. I said yes and he went to it and pulled the cord from the wall. “They listen in through the telephones,” he said. I knew, of course, that in the apartments of foreign diplomats they also listened in through planted microphones and might even have hidden cameras. I did not mention it to him.
He told me he had gone to the trial that day and bumped into Lena, “the weak link.” He saw immediately that she had started singing at the top of her lungs. She refused to look him in the eye and told him that she did not think she could hold out any more. Now it would be only a matter of hours, not days, before he was arrested. He was so desperate to unburden himself that I have never forgotten it.
First he told me about his first stint in the prison system. He had been arrested as a political prisoner, but they got no special treatment under the Soviet system. No “limited security for nerds” facilities under the fist of the Reds. He was dumped straight into the heart of the State prison system, sharing his cell with murderers and other assorted hardcore criminals. And the real criminals, the cons, were contemptuous of the politicals and abused them. (Imagine Noam Chomsky sharing a cell with inner city gang members.) In this way, the State turned one group against another and let the cons do a lot of the punishing on behalf of the authorities. Mostly Mityashin tried to keep a low profile. He did not associate himself closely with any of the other politicals, who always huddled together whenever they got a chance. It was always three groups: the cons, the pols, and him.
He said he would listen to the politicals whisper among themselves at night, frightened of their cellmates and of the future, always carping about something. Finally Mityashin could not keep his silence. One night as the pols continued their complaining about the cons picking on them, he asked them why they took it. “In this cell there are more of us than there are of them. If we all stand together, we can beat them and then they will leave everybody in peace.” They agreed enthusiastically. Of course, why hadn’t they thought of it? The very next time somebody was victimized by a con, all the pols would rise up as one and overwhelm the con.
Shortly after this pledge of unity, he had occasion to test it. Mityashin had been given a prized lower bunk (a wooden plank attached to the wall with chains) and had been using it for a while. One day it was announced that all the prisoners had to leave their cells to allow fumigation (lice were a constant plague). When he got back to the cell, he took off his jacket and laid it across the bed. Just at that moment, one of the cons with an upper bunk moved next to Mityashin and with the toe of his dirty boot threw the jacket on the floor. “I’ll take this,” he said.
Mityashin remembered the pledge and he stood his ground. “It’s my bunk, you don’t get it.”
“Oh, yeah?” said the con, who swung and hit Mityashin in the face with his fist. As Mityashin awaited in vain the thronging of his comrades rushing to his defense, all the cons united and beat Mityashin mercilessly. The guards did not intervene. When it was all over and Mityashin was lying on his top bunk, bleeding and bruised and aching, the criminal who had taken his bed spoke to him.
“Don’t be stupid, kid” he told him. “You’re all in here for a couple of years and then out, but we are here for the rest of our lives. This is it for us and we control this place. If you learn that, you won’t have any more problems.” Mityashin absorbed the lesson and lived by it for the rest of his sentence. He never again had a problem with the criminals, who had gained respect for Mityashin because he had dared to stand up and take a beating. For them, Mityashin was a real idealist, as opposed to the posturing limp-wrists cringing in the corner.
“I saw in prison a microcosm of life in the Soviet Union,” Mityashin told me. “There are so many more of us than there are of them, but nobody dares to rise up in defense when the State turns on some innocent. Unity is impossible.”
With regard to the Fund, Mityashin explained how he had been recruited into the organization and how the KGB had set up the director, Valeriy Repin, for arrest. A “volunteer” with the Fund (in fact a KGB mole) went to Repin’s door and rang the bell. Repin, no doubt peering through the peephole and ascertaining that it was a familiar face, opened the door. The visitor shoved a brown-paper wrapped parcel at him and Repin instinctively took it. At that moment, out of the shadows stepped the photographers, snapping the illegal transaction, followed by the KGB, who arrested the director for possession of prohibited literature. I was not there when it happened, but I imagine he was hauled off with maximum humiliation and lots of cameras, his wife and children left crying in the background. Remember that with the communists, public opprobrium was excellent medicine for the transgressors. Turn the mob against the individual and the individual doesn’t stand a chance.
Since her husband’s arrest, Lena was handling the funds, said Mityashin, and squandering them. “She uses the train between Leningrad and Moscow as if it were a trolley,” he charged with some heat, no doubt thinking of the help those many train tickets would bring to those in need of it. Now the Fund was being rolled up by the KGB, arresting everybody involved, and that would be the end of it. He was headed back to the Gulag.
He did not even mind going back, Mityashin said. But he was almost finished with his book and if he could finish that, he would go at peace and happily. He asked if he could take up sanctuary in the Consulate (as religious believers had done in Moscow) until then. I was mortified. Didn’t it seem only humane to agree? But alas, I had to explain to him that this was prohibited by State Department policy. (See the link (right) to read about State Department policy on asylum.)
It was probably eleven o’clock at night before Mityashin finally rose to leave. Even today I think about that, about his leaving and knowing where he was going. I cannot even imagine how he felt. My heart was very heavy for him and I gave him a gold good-luck charm. It didn’t work and the gold charm no doubt quickly found its way to somebody’s girlfriend. Mityashin was arrested after leaving my apartment, when the sky had turned dusky for the brief hours before it rose again.
I never was able to find any further information about Mityashin. But about six months later, in one of the State-owned newspapers, I read a notice of an upcoming trial of Boris Mityashin.
The notice said the trial was closed to the public!