I was born on 8 March 1929 in the small town of Rivne in Poland, now Western Ukraine, to a Jewish family. My father was a lowly worker, a salesman for a private brewery. Although my mother had already stopped working at that point – she had been a preschool teacher – our family lived comfortably and we didn’t have to struggle to feed or clothe ourselves. In 1937, I was sent to a private Jewish school, where practically all the Jewish children in the town went, regardless of their parents’ finances. During those years, I believed in God, just like my peers, and went to the synagogue with my parents on Saturdays and holidays.
Besides school, my childhood years were occupied with playing cops and robbers, Indians and the white conquerors of the prairie – and all kinds of games and sports such as football, volleyball, hoops, skating and sledding in winter.
Going to the dacha was the single greatest event for me. Everyone else went by train, but I would ride there on a large cart with all the luggage, driven by my favourite carriage driver from the brewery, Mr. Tereshko. I loved horses from a very early age, and when people asked me what I wanted to be when I grew up, I answered without hesitating, ‘Tereshko!’ I remember one holiday, which rounded off the dacha season for us children: we would dress up masquerade-style and there were hollowed-out pumpkins with candles inside that shone through the cut-out patterns of eyes, noses and mouths. We stayed up until the early hours, because everything was allowed on that day.
What did a Polish, read ‘un-Soviet’, upbringing give me? An acute sense of personal worth – honorowość in Polish – and an equal respect for the dignity of every human being. A deep aversion to injustice based on nationality and any other grounds and an understanding of the uniqueness of each person and the right to hold one’s own opinions and choose one’s own actions.
In 1939, when I was ten years old, the Hitlerites invaded Poland. The country was divided even further, as Western Ukraine was occupied by the Red Army. Following a referendum, Western Ukraine became part of the Soviet Union. In 1940, we were all relegated to the same class in a nationalised school. Lessons were held in Russian, a new language for us, and we studied Ukrainian, while Hebrew was all but forgotten.
A few of our rich classmates disappeared. Along with their parents, they were forcibly exiled to deepest Russia. We, on the other hand, became fascinated with communist ideas of universal equality and collectivism. We became Pioneers, Soviet boy and girl scouts, and spent most of our free time at meetings and camping, preparing for the global takeover of communism.
But 1941, the year that Hitler attacked the Soviet Union, was to be the last year of my blissful childhood. My family was lucky, because my father rose to the rank of senior management. At first he was deputy director of the nationalised brewery, then he worked for the construction administration of the NKVD, the Soviet secret police, building defensive structures which were sadly never used.
Never again have I felt such unity
with a people and its leaders.
We were given permission to move away and cross the old border between Poland and Ukraine, which was still closed. Our small family was evacuated to Kyiv, then onwards via goods train to the Volga, Dukhovnitsk, Saratov Oblast and, finally, a month later, to Perm, where my mother’s sister, Lyubov Moiseevna Trushinskaya, had lived since before the Revolution. My grandma, aunts and uncles, cousins, many dear friends, classmates and peers all stayed in Rivne.
A couple of girls were also left behind, my first crushes and some who had crushes on me. Alas, they all died at the hands of the butchers, ignorant thugs and monsters, who imagined that belonging to a different nationality or religion could serve as justification for superiority and persecution. It wasn’t only the Germans! And it wasn’t only back then!
I quickly got to know the other kids in our building in Perm. Adyan was the leader of the yard, a healthy lad and a future professional thief. I have to admit that the mixture of kids in the yard was not much different to how it had been in Rivne, and it seems this was true for all of Perm. And for the entire ‘land of the victorious proletariat’. On the outside, there was grandiose rhetoric, self-aggrandisement and other rituals, but the inside was all narrow-minded morals and a boorish worldview.
The bitter war went on and we were hungry and cold. Besides school, our pioneer brigade collected scrap metal and unloaded barges with small-scale cargo. We couldn’t believe our luck every time we got to unload dried Caspian roach and oil cake from Astrakhan. We also went on group trips to the sauna, where we were checked for lice, visited the cinema and had parties for New Year or the anniversary of the October Revolution. So there were bright moments in our tough, war-time life. It was a difficult but happy time.
We lived off the same oxygen and the same passion, and the imperious, propagandistic slogan – ‘Everything for the front, everything for victory!’ – burst forth from everyone’s chests. Never again have I felt such unity with a people and its leaders. It was the result of deep hatred for the fascists.
1942 was the hardest year of our lives, both physically and mentally. We had gotten used to being half-starved and half-clothed. In fact, I spent half the cruel winter walking around in simple boots and my schoolboy’s cloth cap, because my father was unable to buy me warm felt boots and a fur hat. But we could not get used to the idea of retreat or defeat on the front. It was impossible.
This totally contradicted the traditional rhetoric and self-congratulation that permeated society. Of course, my non-traditional upbringing encouraged me to approach words and slogans critically, but, before the war, I soaked up ideas and a belief in the bright communist future of humanity, just like my peers. Alas! Utopia, even one supported by the majority of a semi-literate and misguided population, remained a utopia.
Rumours about the bloody terror
reached me, and my uncle was
imprisoned for a while
on false charges.
In 1942, Stalin decided to introduce single-sex education in the form of girls’ and boys’ schools. This was supposed to promote the militarisation of schools and a Spartan education for boys. School no. 17 became a girls’ school, and I ended up in Year 8 at school no. 21. The boys’ school differed from the girls’ school in its rowdiness – to the extent that one younger boy was stabbed – and the range of ability, intellect and enthusiasm of its pupils. I made friends with Yura Fedotov, Slava Pavlov and Vadim Yumshanov, and the same year I joined the Komsomol.
For the November holidays of 1943, the Red Army presented the Soviet population with an incredible gift: the liberation of Kyiv. I remember our joy when Mulya Meltser stumbled into history class and broke the news. Needless to say, the rest of the lesson was a write-off. Around that time we realised, with great delight and satisfaction, that our victory was irreversible, that we would live, that the promised joyful future was awaiting us. Nobody stopped to think about what price we had to pay to get there or how likely it was that our childhood dreams would be realised.
Then it arrived! From the early morning of 9 May 1945, the radio was playing victory marches. Yura Fedotov ran over to my house and we rushed over to meet Yumshanov and Pavlov, then to school, where they told us there would be no lessons that day. Overflowing with joy, we ran around town from one orchestra to the next, from one impromptu dance floor to the next. It was a triumph shared by the entire people.
Timpani and drums rang out, a victory parade took place on Red Square, America dropped the atomic bomb on Hiroshima and we, fulfilling our promise to our allies, attacked and blitzed Japan in gratitude for its steadfast neutrality during those years that were so hard for us. Stalin praised the Soviet people, the ‘cogs in the machine’, for helping secure victory, and I thought ever more often about why our life was so tough despite the victory, why we said one thing but did another, why we praised ourselves so unapologetically but were so afraid to tell the truth.
In autumn, we started Year 10 at another school, no. 11, which at the time was the last year of secondary school. But fate would not allow me to graduate. I have already discussed my critical attitude towards the charms of the Bolshevik ideology and the hypocrisy and deceit that penetrated all aspects of Soviet life. Rumours about the bloody terror reached me, and my uncle was imprisoned for a while on false charges.
With this in mind, I, bursting with a sense of injustice, childish dreams and a revolutionary spirit, created the ‘New Communist Party of Justice’. Membership: Izya Zektser, chairman; Slava Pavlov; Vadim Yumshanov; Boris Belov; and Dima Pleshkov, who joined later. We recognised and preserved the agenda of the All-Union Communist Party of the Bolsheviks, but planned to rework its statutes and regulations. Our goal was to restore justice, eliminate corruption and build a ‘truly socialist’ society. Our methods involved using propaganda and agitation to attract the majority of the population to our ranks and topple the civil-servant party elite from power.
But we didn’t say a word about the dictator. Our fear of him and his oppressive system was so great that we intuitively decided not to include him in our manifesto. We were dilettantes – we had no clue about the details of macroeconomics or the principles of running a state. We were just big kids playing a big game that was exciting but dangerous in the USSR. At least I was playing the game. For, as it turned out, two of the five members of our party were secret KGB collaborators from the beginning. There was nothing unnatural about it, that’s just how things worked in our ‘advanced Soviet society’.
I discovered that I was a state criminal.
We were allowed to exist for two months. Then, early in the morning of 6 December, I left my house and headed towards school. It was completely dark. As soon as I turned onto Komsomolsky Avenue, in between Communist and Lenin Street, two sturdy young men in civilian clothing approached me from behind, and a GAZ M-1 staff car drew up alongside me. They grabbed me and bundled me into the car. Not understanding what was going on, I broke free and started running out of fear. Of course they caught up with me and shoved me into the car with the help of a third guy. One of the assault team picked up my school books that had been scattered on the ground – it was the fashion then to carry your books to school without a briefcase –, which calmed me down a bit. Nonetheless, I pestered the three men the whole short journey: ‘Hey, where are you taking me?’ When the car stopped, the boss, who was sitting next to the driver, got out, struck a pose and solemnly intoned: ‘the KGB department!’
I was taken upstairs and almost immediately led into the office of the head of the investigative branch, Colonel Khetselius. We got to know each other. He was a handsome man, around 35 years old. I discovered that I was a state criminal, that he would personally take charge of the investigation and that I would be held in the internal prison of the Perm KGB, where I was promptly transferred. I also learnt that Khetselius’ son was also a pupil at school no. 11, and I had to explain why I had resisted during arrest. That’s how my teenage years ended. I became a young man and began my prison education.
I was taken to a cell. I remember a narrow corridor with around ten metal doors on both sides with food hatches and peep holes. At the end of the corridor was a toilet, like the kind you’d find in a station, and doors leading to two exercise yards. In the cell, there were two bunks with a little table in between by the window, which was ‘muzzled’ shut. By the door, to the left, was the obligatory hole in the ground, and there was very little free space to walk around – enough only for a short walk: two steps in one direction, two steps back.
Two men were already confined to this cell. One of them introduced himself as an engineer from Krasnokamsk, the other as a simple, ill-educated man, a miner from Kizel. They didn’t tell me their surnames. During the day we sat on the bunks, like on a sleeper train, and at night we pushed the bunks together and slept in relative comfort. Since I was the youngest at 16 years old and didn’t need to use the hole in the ground at night, I slept in the middle. It was forbidden to sleep during the day, and at night the bright light of the electric lightbulb in its metal cage shone violently in your eyes. But I quickly got used to this.
I think I was stupid and right.
Prisoners, as a rule, were called for questioning during the day. I wasn’t subjected to brute force during the interrogation, and my cell-mates didn’t complain of violence either. Only once did Khetselius, unable to bear my stubbornness, leap towards me, fists clenched, before managing to restrain himself. During the interrogation he and I basically had ideological debates.
I didn’t hide my ‘anti-Soviet’ views, but insisted that I was right. The colonel wrote down my answers carefully, inserting phrases such as ‘maliciously’ and ‘with the intention of discrediting the Soviet government’. When I went through and signed each page, I made them rub out these bits. But I took all the blame for our ‘party’ on myself.
So we worked together amicably, when we weren’t arguing about him trying to force me to denounce adults who had supposedly run the whole operation. When I proudly declared that I had thought up everything myself by studying the reality of our society, Khetselius assured me that I was still wet behind the ears and that he would gladly remove my trousers and give me a good beating. At which I sprung up mortified and cried, ‘Just you try!’ Khetselius came at me with his fists raised, but… I already recounted the end of that story. After that, the attempts to fabricate an adult ringleader stopped. For a long time I was surprised. Why? Why didn’t the all-powerful authorities even try to involve my father in the case? Why did they agree so easily to deal with me alone, not bringing anyone else to account, while they charged me with two crimes: articles 58-10, idle talk – ‘anti-Soviet agitation’, and 58-11 – ‘anti-Soviet organisation’?
Later I realised why: the regional commissar, Comrade Gusarov, didn’t want a surge of cases and trials on his watch, especially when it came to Soviet schoolchildren and Komsomol members. And I thanked God on behalf of my father, my family, and even my friends and co-conspirators. Only many years later did I discover the role my two friends played in betraying us.
I was kept at the internal KGB prison, with a break of one month when I was put under psychiatric examination. Relatively soon, in December 1945, I was allowed to see my father in Khetselius’ office. My father burst into tears, and only then did I understand the depth of the tragedy that had occurred in my life. It was too late, but I still thought that I was right. I still think so! I think I was stupid and right.
My cell-mates gradually changed. We were sometimes two in the cell, and at one point I was alone for around two weeks during the May holidays. I could hear the sound of the orchestras and the songs of the marchers and a terrible anguish overwhelmed me. I howled.
At the psychiatric unit, I made friends with one grown-up intellectual, who admitted to me that he was pretending to be a lunatic. He was no worse at chess than me and played for interesting little things, such as an egg, a sweet or something else to eat that reached us in parcels from my unfortunate parents and his no more fortunate wife. What happened to him, whether he managed to fool the psychiatrists, I don’t know, for I left before him.
I became respected and could lay claim to an extra serving of food or bowlful of soup, as well as
my own parcels.
The day came when the relevant commission, headed by one Professor Zalkind, gathered together for my medical review. The only thing I remember from the whole process is their last question: ‘Now your family has the opportunity to go to Poland. Do you want to return there?’ And my response: ‘No, they don’t have socialism there either!’ To which the professor replied: ‘So you’re still insisting that there’s no socialism in the USSR? Get out of here!’
Soon afterwards, I was put back in prison. Later in my life, I thanked God and Professor Zalkind that I escaped the violence and intensive care at the psychiatric unit. Until around the end of July, I crashed at my ‘home’ prison, occupying myself solely with reading, chess and food. Then I was summoned to see the prison boss, with whom I had already ‘made friends’ on the way to the psychiatric unit and back, and he read out the official document stating my sentence: three years in a minimum security correctional labour camp. And he congratulated me on such a ‘soft’ verdict. That was the truth: when I later discovered the details of my case, I found out that Comrade Khetselius had requested five years for me from the Ministry of Internal Affairs.
And so I was taken to a transit prison. To a large cell crammed with people, where the wall-to-wall bunks glistened with half-naked, sweaty bodies. One prison godfather took me under his wing and I settled into his separate bunks by the window.
I was lucky to have this connection with him, despite my nationality and my name. At first, it seemed my small stature and the famous article 58 worked in my favour. I lived comfortably for about a week, until a prison officer, apparently an investigator, sent for me. He asked me to report on what people were saying in the cell, which crimes they were preparing. I refused and was immediately escorted away by the officer to a different cell – one for minors. They took my shoes away from me, the ones my dad had brought to the detention centre, and beat me up a little. My saving grace was the novels by Scott and Cooper that I began reciting to them from memory.
I became respected and could lay claim to an extra serving of food or bowlful of soup, as well as my own parcels. Naturally, though, I had to share with the two mafia bosses who ruled my cell. My transit prison saga ended thanks to the efforts of my father: along with several others, I was chosen by the vice-director to work at Separate Prison Cooperative no. 1, which was just outside the centre of Perm.
My father had begged the director of the cooperative, Lieutenant Fudelman, not entirely selflessly, to take in his kid. Our handpicked contingent of production specialists, around 50 people, including ten minors, was gathered together, warned of the consequences of running away – ‘One step to the left, one step to the right counts as running away!’ – and led out of the prison gates. Security guards with dogs escorted us through the streets of Perm to the place where the future puppet theatre on Karl Marx Street would be.
I was 19 years old, educated for nine years at
secondary school and three years at the university of prison.
My second night there, I was appointed to work as a locksmith in the lock section. The foreman on the night shift was also a convict, a Jew from Belarus. He gave me a special tool, showed me how to file away the cast iron from keyholes and said he hoped I would overfulfil my quota. Unfortunately, I was not genetically wired for mindless physical labour. Towards morning, the foreman finished, or redid, my work for me, while I slept under the workbench.
After lunch, I was summoned to the supply room where I met Jean Feldman, who became my friend, comrade and protector. He was a young, handsome, exceptionally erudite Romanian Jewish intellectual, sentenced according to article 58, of course, to 10 years. He had settled in incredibly well by prison standards, and lived alone in the second room of the supply store, ‘not giving a damn’. He had food delivered to his door from the high table and female prison employees would run to meet him in the supply room ‘for a rendez-vous’. He was the sole guard of all the supplies, from bed linen to fur coats and sheepskin coats, which proved very valuable after the war.
Then Zinovii Gelman, the head of the electrical section, was called to the supply room and it was decided I would become a student of electrical engineering. Of all the people I was close to in prison, who became my friends, comrades and benevolent mentors, not just Jews, but also Russians and Ukrainians, my absolute favourite was Zinovii Gelman. An Odessan, he was exceptionally clever and sharp-witted, with kind eyes that radiated light and warmth. He had his own kind of charisma, an incomprehensible charm. The young, married female boss of the infirmary was hopelessly, madly in love with him. Sadly, their love ended tragically, and the lady was forced to leave her job.
Zinovii wasn’t political, but he was convicted for some shady enterprise – let’s not forget that he was from Odessa, exceptionally clever, opportunistic and skilful. He treated me with amusement, even irony, for he clearly didn’t approve of my lack of aptitude for physical labour. It was my ingenuity, honesty and ability to play volleyball that brought us together! He himself was an amazing, inspired player. This is how I spent my sentence at Prison Cooperative no. 1, surrounded by a large number of wonderful, kind people.
The year 1948 arrived and my freedom drew ever closer. But a young female boss from the special unit informed Jean Feldman that they had received an order: to exile me to a special settlement in Krasnoyarsk region instead of releasing me. Fortunately, my father pulled all the strings he could and the regional prosecutor’s office, taking into account my age and exemplary behaviour, decided to free me anyway!
Of course, I was given 24 hours to get out of Perm and was forbidden to live in any major towns in Russia. I had to get on with my life, despite the barriers facing me, the stamp in my passport that marked me out as a dissenter and the section in my passport that stated I was a non-Christian. I was 19 years old, educated for nine years at secondary school and three years at the university of prison. My exile began, and it would be many years before I could return to Perm.
_ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _
Russia ended up being that unlucky country that fate chose for a global experiment, for its people were the most susceptible. Before the revolution, Russia was divided into two main, incompatible cultural groups: aristocrats and peasants. Fortunately, we wiped out the first, but the second has taken over society and is threatening to wipe us out!
Do we have even the slightest chance of escaping death, destruction, collapse, disintegration, new revolutions, the past repeating itself? I don’t know. I doubt it! But I want that with my whole heart.