on freedom, captivity, and friendship
Human rights activist, writer, and poet Vitold Abankin was born in 1946 in Yeysk, near Rostov-on-Don, in a family of a Navy officer. Lessons received from his father on how to think independently determined Abankin's extraordinary life story which intersected with some of the most dramatic events of Russia’s recent history — both tragically and triumphantly.
In 1966, while undergoing compulsory military service in East Germany, Abankin was sentenced to 12 years in a treason case for his attempt to defect to West Berlin. Just a few days before his failed escape the entire troop unit -- from officers to privates -- was engrossed in reading his poems about the Novocherkassk massacre of 1962. The massacre in Novocherkassk — the cultural capital of the Cossacks — to this day remains one of the darkest episodes of the post-war Soviet history where scores of workers were killed and wounded by the authorities during an unarmed protest. One of Abankin’s readers turned out to be a snitch. A poem from his notebook — which circulated among the regiment — and which he wrote at the age of 16 — vividly illustrates why after his failed getaway the KGB threatened to charge him with yet another crime — "anti-Soviet agitation".
Over Russia, from the Kremlin heights
Red stars glare with fiery light.
Their glow all over the country
Swells and ripens with human blood.
Greedy tentacles stretch over earth
Twist around the whole universe.
They sow fear and then they sow dread.
Chop them off and gain freedom instead.
After Abankin was handed back to the Soviets by the East German border patrol, his case officer at the KGB prison in Potsdam threatened him with capital punishment, while sternly asking: "Do you wish to stay alive?" "It depends on what you call life," replied Abankin.
The Soviets, being mindful of the fact that his uncle was an admiral, offered Abankin a deal: to renounce his poetry and to receive "a minimum sentence." But he refused to do business with the authorities, did not renounce his poems and received his 12-year sentence.
In confinement he matured as a human rights activist and as an intellectual, helped by discussions with illustrious fellow prisoners who defined the era: Valentin Sokolov (better known by his pen name Valentin Z/K, "Z/K" meaning "detainee"), Yuri Galanskov, Andrei Sinyavsky, and Vladimir Bukovsky. Apart from courage and firm belief in the criminality of the Soviet regime, Bukovsky and Anbankin shared another thing in common: their Polish heritage. Bukovsky's ancestor took part in the uprising against the Russian Empire led in 1794 by Tadeusz Kościuszko in the Polish–Lithuanian Commonwealth. And Abankin's mother, Leonarda Lyakhovskaya, who he sadly does not remember, was a pianist from a Polish aristocratic family, and also an activist. After World War II she was handing out hand-written political leaflets in the Ukrainian port city of Odessa, accusing Stalin of being "the butcher of the Polish people." She was seized and placed in a mental hospital prison where she died in 1965.
"This is how people of the same blood seek each other out," Abankin wrote later, but with a different person in mind -- an 11-year-old girl with Polish roots he'd met when he was 13 and whom he married decades later.
After 12 years spent in confinement, Vitold Abankin focused his efforts on helping Russia become a rule-of-law state. He worked as an assistant to the legendary human rights activist Sergei Kovalev in the lower house of the Federal Assembly of Russia, and helped Vladimir Bukovsky with his work in the communist party archives in the early 90s. One of his other pursuits — a more solemn one — concerned preservation of the memory of Russian poets who perished in Soviet prisons and whose legacy the state now chooses to ignore. It was Abankin who initiated the reburial of the remains of poet Yuri Galanskov, transferring them from the labor camp where he died to the Kotlyakovskoye Cemetery in Moscow. He carried this project out himself in the fall of 1991, with Boris Yeltsin's approval. In 2013 he opened a gravesite memorial to Valentin Sokolov — one of the most profound Russian poets the second half of the 20th century, who became the voice of the entire generation of prisoners — a voice both blisteringly vibrant and at the same time chillingly detached, a kind of voice which sounds after all thresholds of pain have been crossed. Abankin, with his ear perfectly pitched to everything authentic, reprinted Sokolov's collection of poems titled "A Gulp of Ozone" three times over the past decade, and twice reprinted a book about Yuri Galanskov.
Abankin's own short stories which he kept writing throughout his life, were published only after the collapse of the USSR. One collection, dedicated to his prison experiences, is titled "Horrid Stories". The other one, detailing his time the Soviet Army, is titled "We Serve the Soviet Union". Both show a keen eye for detail, deep knowledge of human character, but also a skill for painting broad, panoramic narratives. He achieves this not only through his innate talent — which is immediately apparent — but also through a particular kind of ability one acquires in confinement, an ability to look at things as if through a magnifying glass, but at the same time capable of rising high enough to see the big picture and to arrive at big conclusions.
In his interview to the Soviet History Lessons web site Vitold Andreevich Abankin kindly agreed to share his memories and to reminisce about his friends Yuri Galanskov and Vladimir Bukovsky.
Alissa Ordabai: Vitold Andreevich, could you tell our readers a bit about the family you grew up in, and about your father.
Vitold Abankin: My father was a Lieutenant-Commander. Several times they offered him to join the communist party, but he would refuse every time, and finally left the navy. In Rostov he worked as a chief engineer at a ship-repair yard. They told him that joining the party would get him a promotion and make him director of the entire operation. He replied, "I am not too keen on the prospect of hanging from a lamp post together with you lot one day."
The KGB summoned him when I was already in prison, and told him that my imprisonment was his fault. It was he who put a pair of earphones around my head when I was 11, tuned the receiver to the Voice of America and told me: "Here you can hear the truth about our country. But don't tell anyone." So I was already a fully fledged anticommunist by the time of the Novocherkassk massacre. I made a bomb and was going to throw it at the building of our regional committee of the communist party. My father took away the bomb and said: "Attempts by loners will remain useless until the entire nation realizes who deceives them and who exploits them." I left home and lived on a boat on the River Don. Then I returned home and began to write poetry.
Andrei Sergeevich Abankin, Lieutenant-Commander, Vitold Abankin's father.
My father's elder brother — whose name was Pavel — was an Admiral and used to frequent Stalin's office. My father had two other brothers, both Navy officers. All of them became members of the communist party. My father never joined the party and used to call it "the party of thieves and butchers." He also reproached his brothers for joining. One day my father and I came to Moscow to visit Pavel, the Admiral. He and my father, as usual, began arguing. Things got out of hand and and my father hit his brother across the head with a flat-iron. He kept saying Pavel should shoot the mustachioed monster. He really came down on him, saying that following Stalin's orders generals and officers were being shot and sent to jail, that they were silently accepting their fate, and that the country desperately needed a stout-hearted person who could either shoot or strangle the swine. He ended up demanding that Pavel takes him to the Kremlin so that he himself could kill him.
Pavel took after their mother, and my father took after their father. Their father was captain's assistant on River Don, sailed passenger ships. My grandfather had 13 children and provided for them all. When my father retired from the Navy, he was due to receive 600 square meters of land. He was called to the office of his local military agency and the military commissar (who was a crook) told my father that he was not a party member, but nevertheless was going to receive his piece of land. My father got mad, and said: "Take this land and use it to bury members of your party of thieves and butchers.” The commissar threatened to report the incident to the KGB, but my father replied that this was precisely where he was going to disclose the commissar's shenanigans. So the commissar shut up.
When my father came to visit me in the labor camp for the first time, they ordered him to undress, to squat, to bend over, to pull apart his buttocks, to lift his legs... I went berserk, and wanted to burn down the staff headquarters. So I brought a bottle of gasoline. But fellow inmates talked me out of it. Then, in protest against humiliation of my father I refused to have further visits. I never saw him again. He died ten months before my release.
Did your father's brother know deep down that Stalin was a criminal?
Vitold Abankin: Pavel hated Stalin too. They all hated him, he used to tell my father about it. But their fear ran deeper than their hatred. And this was the root of all trouble. Stalin had a huge carpet in his office, and by the door the carpet corner was curled. Anyone coming into his office for the first time would always trip over or even fall. The old monster would smile and say, "Oh my, aren't you clumsy?" And a sadistic smile would pass over his face. He was a dyed-in-the-wool rascal, a criminal, a gangster, who couldn't get enough of his power. He would personally finish off the Tsar's cash-in-transit guards when he robbed carriages full of money. My father used to tell me that even in 1921 newspapers would still write about his bloody past. My grandfather passed a lot of information to my father about this murderer.
In labor camp number 11 we had an inmate from Latvia whose last name was Yokst, and who was given a 25-year sentence. He was arrested in a city, beaten, and brought to the NKVD (secret police - AO) building. The investigator's office where they brought him was on the second floor. The window had no bars and overlooked the street. There was a heavy glass inkpot on his desk. So Yokst immediately hit the investigator over the head with it, kicked out the window frame and jumped out, landing on top of his friend who too was in town at the time. They laughed as they ran down the street. He was apprehended a year later.
So my father used to say to his brother that the bastard could simply be strangled — in case it was impossible to bring any weapons into his office. Pavel would nearly faint when he was hearing this. His wife was a cafeteria lady in the Kremlin. They were childless. And Pavel wanted to adopt me. My father would say, "What kind of person are you going to bring up? A coward and a lackey, just like yourself."
My father had a lot of acquaintances who were former military men, and they all cursed Stalin and the communist party. They all knew the truth about the war -- how talentless generals brought death upon soldiers. How supply officers stole rations, uniforms, and livestock fodder. Many home front men grew fat during the war. Not many people mention it. In his novel "Days and Nights" Simonov describes some of it.
How old were you when you found out about the massacre of the unarmed workers' protest in Novocherkassk?
Pavel Sergeevich Abankin, Admiral, Vitold Abankin's uncle.
I was 16 when workers were shot in Novocherkassk.
Were there many young people of your age who were enraged by what had happened there? Were there any who were prepared to enter into combat with the authorities the way you were?
I had friends — both male and female — at school, and I was relaying to them what I was hearing on the radio. They were all questioned during the investigation into my case, but no one betrayed me, except for one person, who was my best friend — Vladimir Kocherga. Even the girls — Tanya and Luyda — testified that they had never heard about me telling anyone anything about foreign radio broadcasts. I got to read their responses to the investigator's questions.
Events in Novocherkassk opened many people's eyes regarding the communist party. Rostselmash (an agricultural equipment manufacturer, based in Rostov-on-Don — AO) was boiling. The KGB stopped production and told everyone to go home. At the front gate they would peer into people's faces and listen into people's conversations. Then they gathered everyone in a meeting, and threatened them. Naturally, there were no others who would entertain the idea of making and detonating a bomb. But I am no mind reader, and couldn't tell what people were feeling inside. So I can't really answer this question.
Funeral of workers massacred by the authorities in Novocherkassk.
How do you remember your time in the army and how did you manage to distribute your poems among officers and privates while there?
My time in the army was easy because everyone knew what kind of family I was from. The regiment's commanding officer would shake my hand as a form of greeting, and would often invite me over for tea. I told him and his officers about the Novocherkassk massacre and read my poems to them. I was warned to be careful and to be mindful of the snitches, who were pointed out to me.
Each troop unit in East Germany had its own KGB man. The military hated the KGB. But in my case everything happened by accident. My poetry notebook somehow reached the KGB man, so I made an escape attempt to West Berlin. On the border I was seized by the East German border patrol and was handed over to the KGB.
The KGB had no clue what to do with me. Given that my poems had been read by the high-ranking officers, sergeants, and privates... You can't send half of the regiment to jail, can you? So I was offered a deal: I was to renounce my poems and be charged under Article 64 of the Penal Code for a high treason attempt. Otherwise they said they'd charge me under Article 70 which includes incitement to overthrow the Soviet government. So this is how I was sentenced to 12 years. They saved their own skin, and at the same time saved me from the death sentence. So the KGB aren't all that loyal to the authorities. Their own skin concerns them way more.
How could your notebook have reached the KGB? Who could have had it in for you?
I had been openly speaking about the Novocherkassk massacre. Sergeant-major Zhilkin was among those how listened, and expressed his indignation. One day I was on mess duty. Nowadays external contractors take care of such things, but in my time everything was being done by the privates. We would wash the dishes, wash the floors, distribute vessels with food, cut dark spots out of potatoes. We had a machine which peeled them, but black spots would still remain. Imagine having to change the water three times in order to wash 1150 bowls, spoons, 50 soup cisterns, 50 second course cisterns, 1150 tea mugs, 50 meat bowls. We also had to wash the paddle-shaped stirrers for soup and porridge, ladles, etc.
So here I am, peeling the potatoes with the other guys. Then they call me into the kitchen. I go in, and see that they are frying fish on huge roasting trays, and I can smell rot. So I say to the cook that the fish is gone. That I see fish like this on River Don all the time, and even crows don't eat it. Suddenly Zhilkin comes in and starts having a go at me: "If your uncle is an Admiral, this still doesn't mean that you are the cleverest. Go peel your potatoes, don't idle around here, or else I'll send you on some kind of other duty." Like a fool, I grab two pieces of fish and put them in my mouth. And then I'm off back to peeling the potatoes. This was in the afternoon before my duty shift. We finished peeling the potatoes and lined up for the roll call in the kitchen. This was an hour after I'd eaten the fish. So I'm standing in formation and suddenly I feel my legs giving in and everything goes hazy. I puked, fell down, and lost consciousness.
I came to in the medical unit. Doctors were all around me, asking me what had happened. I told them. They pumped my stomach. The medical officer told me I had behaved like a fool, that I could have died, and that such things have consequences which may last a lifetime, and that fish poisoning is the worst kind of poisoning one can get. That I should have told the medics instead of arguing with idiot Zhilkin. The regiment's commanding officer came running in and hit Zhilkin across the face, told him he was going to kick him out of the communist party and send him back to the Soviet Union. Fish was replaced with canned food. So apparently I saved the entire regiment from poisoning. One thousand one hundred and fifty men could have been poisoned. Many would have died. So when Zhilkin got his hands on my poetry notebook, he decided it was time for revenge and took it to he KGB man.
How did you come to a decision to escape from your military base?
On August 1, at about 10:30 p.m. a got a phone call from Lieutenant Sasha from the regiment's headquarters. In a nervous voice he told me that Sergeant-Мajor Zhilkin went with my poetry notebook to the KGB man, who usually sat in his office until late at night. And here I was, in the battalion headquarters, filling in the daily report book: how many privates are there in the battalion, how many are on various duties, how many are sick, etc. Sasha told me to run to West Berlin, and that its TV tower -- which was visible from our base -- should serve me as a guiding landmark. It was a bit over 11 kilometers away.
I grabbed a pair of pincers and a nail drawer. I wanted to force open the shutter of the store and take a jumpsuit. It would have been dangerous to try to escape while wearing a uniform.
But nothing came of it. The shutter proved to be too sturdy, and I didn't want to make noise. I hid the pincers and the nail drawer in the bushes. Then I took razor blades (to be able to shave while on the go), shoe polish, and a notebook. I got to the stadium and from there ran to the fence, which had one board loose, and which I was using earlier to escape on short unauthorized leaves to take an apple or two from the German orchards.
And then I saw Victor Chesnokov come out of the bushes. I briefly told him what had happened, and he decided to go with me. Although I tried to persuade him not to. But he told me: "We'll fight international communism together."
Vitold Abankin at 16.
So we left the base and started walking along the highway toward Berlin, along the road, keeping close to the bushes. We have walked for about one kilometer when Victor suddenly turned to me and said that he indeed had no reason for escaping and that he felt like turning back. A breathed a sigh of relief. And he turned back. While I proceeded to run and walk at a quicker pace along the road. At one point I stopped and heard some kind of clip-clopping along the road. I bent down and looked at the dimly lit horizon. Someone was walking down the road. And I realized that it was Victor. He had heel plates on his boots. Had I known how it would all end, I'd never have called out to him. "What's the matter, have you changed your mind?" I asked him. "Yes, I have," he said. "Perhaps they are already looking for us. And when they see me return, what am I going to tell them?" -- "You could have told them that you went to get some apples. They know perfectly well that we now and then go get those apples." -- "Nah, I'll go with you." And so we went.
I felt uneasy. He was a brave, tough guy, and suddenly I saw him lose his spirit and I wasn't recognizing him. It got dark and it became difficult to make progress. We couldn't walk on the road, because it had cars on it, driving at great speed. And we were in our uniforms. We walked slowly and because of Victor's fickleness have lost time. Then the sun started to rise. We saw a small lake and lay down near it in the bushes. The number of cars on the road increased and people could notice us. We had some rest, looked around, and decided to continue walking without losing sight of the road. After all, this was the road to Berlin. We have only managed to walk for about 100 meters when we saw a lance corporal and a sergeant walking toward us along a narrow footpath. Their surnames were Zangirov and Maksimov, as we found out later from reading our case files. We told them that we went to get some apples, but were noticed by the Germans, so we were returning back to the base. They went their way, and we continued walking.
It was rather dangerous to walk so openly, so we lay down by a small river in the bushes. It was mid-day when we suddenly saw a woman with a child, a woven basket in hand. She was pretending to be picking mushrooms, but she was looking around very attentively all the time, listening carefully, and obviously conducting some kind of observation. We could see this right away. Near her there was a man dressed in civilian clothes, who was raking fallen leaves with a wooden stick, and who was also looking around quite a lot and exchanging remarks with the woman. Suddenly we saw about a dozen armed soldiers with an officer. They walked in line doing a grid search. Very carefully we crawled into the river and immersed ourselves in water. Only our heads were sticking out amidst the sedge grass. And this was how we remained until the very evening. Helicopters were flying over our heads. Soldiers passed us again, in a search line formation. This time there were even more of them.
When everything quietened down, we came out of the water, took our clothes off and hung it on bush branches to dry. It was very hot. When our boots got dry, I polished them with the shoe polish. I made a shaving stick out of a tree branch and we shaved. Our clothes were now dry. We got dressed and came out of the bushes. Almost immediately, while walking along the bank of Lake Krampnitz, we ran into two patrol guards (their last names were Kleimenov and Desyatov, as we later found out from our case files). They were looking for us. But seeing two tidy soldiers in shiny boots, who were shaven and calm, and weren't trying to escape, they simply asked us what we were doing. We replied that we went to get some apples, but couldn't get any, and were now returning to the base. We showed them where the German orchard was. So they went their way.
It was getting dark. We were walking across the forest and suddenly heard many voices. So we climbed on top of a tree. And did this just in time -- the soldiers were walking in a grid search line right underneath. It got dark. We continued to walk on very carefully. It's difficult to walk in the woods at night. You constantly bump into trees and bushes. There was no moon. It was pitch-dark. So it became dangerous to continue walking, especially given that we didn't know our way. We couldn't see the TV tower from where we were, so we decided to get some sleep. In the morning we woke up and continued walking. But soon we saw helicopters above our heads, soldiers searching the forest in a grid line, people in civilian clothes, so again we hid in the bushes and camouflaged ourselves with the grass. The day passed. No one saw us. It was the evening of August 2.
As soon as it got dark, we began to walk on very carefully. Previously, during the day, we saw the TV tower, so we now knew were it was. By morning we got to the lake. We stuffed our clothes in our boots, tied the boot tops with a rope and hung them off our necks. We put our documents in our field service caps and swam across. When we got to the other shore, we got dressed and started walking through the woods. Soon we reached a row of barbed wire -- 170 centimeters high -- which was attached to wooden poles. We climbed over it very easily and kept walking. We knew that we were now walking across the frontier zone.
Fernsehturm Berlin, the Berlin Television Tower.
Soon we saw an abandoned village. When this border was being created, the village found itself right in the middle of the frontier zone, and the people who lived here were told to leave their homes. Grass and shrubs now grew everywhere. The houses were bending sideways, many stood without window frames and without doors. This is how the Kremlin was creating its GULAG in the European countries it invaded. We passed through the dead village and came to a canal. It was deep, but only 12-15 meters wide. We saw a cracked boat by the shore.
We took it to water and pushed ourselves off the shore. We paddled with our hands and soon got to the other side of the canal. The boat didn't have enough time to get filled with water. Then we walked, and after about 100 meters ran into a steel mesh, three meters high, which was fastened to rails which stood upright, dug into the ground, their standing position reinforced with concrete. We climbed over it.
Then we continued walking through the woods, and after another 100 meters reached a cleared strip which had watchtowers positioned 100 meters away from each other. We hid behind the trees and began to observe our surroundings. A soldier on top of a watchtower was asleep, and his snoring resonated throughout the entire forest. We carefully passed very close to that watchtower and went deeper into the forest. The sun began to rise. Then we saw another line of barbed wire attached to poles, 170 centimeters high. We climbed over it and suddenly -- to the right of us -- a green rocket went up. We realized that we have triggered their signaling system. We ran forward and this was when I heard the roar of a car engine. Right in front of us, in some 30 meters, there was another lake. We decided to hide. The grass was tall and dense, and there were many shrubs and bushes. I told Victor to lie dawn so that one bush would be placed between his legs, and another one near his neck, and to cover himself with grass. No one was going to walk into a bush.
So this is how we lay -- seven or eight meters apart from each other. I raised my head and saw a truck. Then it stopped and East German soldiers jumped out of it and started walking toward the lake in a search line. They looked sleepy and disheveled. You could tell the they didn't give a toss and their only wish was to catch up on their sleep. They reached the water and then turned back to the truck. One ginger, tall, freckled German was barely moving his feet and was constantly yawning. He was dragging his machine gun along the ground. Then he stopped, clenched his machine gun between his legs and tried to light a cigarette. The morning breeze put his light out. He began turning in the other direction to have his back to the wind, and suddenly... shrieked. His machine gun fell to the ground, and he was pointing with his hand toward the grass and yelling. All other soldiers came running to him and now stood in circle. In the middle of that circle lay Chesnikov. Private Sempler (I found out his name from reading my case file) saw his boot in the grass. Then Cheskonov got up and... came up to me. The soldiers made way for him. "Get up, Vitold, they have captured us." I was in shock! If I were him, I'd lead the soldiers to the truck. And if they asked me about the other one, I'd tell them we had had an argument, and that I didn't want to escape, and simply wanted to get back to the base, ending up with a minimum jail term. But this idiot drove my term up to 12 years and his own term up to 10. Never get involved with fools. If you need to have something done -- do it alone.
I wasn't politically rehabilitated, as my escape was from a military base, and our rules in East Germany automatically classified absence lasting for over two hours as treason. During my trial I said that I had not betrayed my homeland, because governments change, and homeland remains forever. And that the Soviet government has no right to identify itself with our homeland -- the fact which it itself confirmed by spilling blood of the workers of Novocherkassk.
What was your trial like? Where did it take place?
The trial took place in Magdeburg, in the office of the army prosecutor. It lasted two days. Each day they'd transport us to Magdeburg from the KGB prison in Potsdam. When they seized me, they took me straight to Magdeburg to the army headquarters. In a big hall I saw colonels, generals, and officers gathered in the corner. Like spiders in a dark hole. In the middle of the hall there was a round table with a map on top of it. Then I saw colonel Nikiforov enter the room. He was the commander of artillery and rocket troops. He told me to come over to the map. I did. And he near-whispered in a shaking voice: "Son, what have you done?!" I said, "And what have YOU done in Novocherkassk, shooting at workers, at your own people?!" Tears showed in his eyes: "Don't you confuse me with them." And he gestured behind his shoulder, hinting at the KGB. "I would never shoot at my own people. I am a soldier, not a butcher. Very well then, we'll help you, keep your spirits up." No one else heard our conversation.
Vitold Abankin on the steps of the KGB prison in Potsdam (now a museum) in 2000.
Punishment cells in the KGB prison in Potsdam.
And then I was taken to prison in Potsdam. The prison governor was a former pilot. He committed some kind of offense, so they, like idiots, appointed a pilot (!) prison governor. Unbelievable. In the evening he came to my cell, and he and I talked until late at night. "These bastards will give you a long sentence. You should have thought through your escape more thoroughly." And I kept telling him for the tenth time that everything had happened suddenly and I've had no time to plan anything. He would come into my cell every evening when things would quieten down. I would tell him about my father, about Rostov-on-Don, about my bride. When I was brought back after a day in court, he brought me a large dish with fried potatoes, patties, tea, and cakes. He was quite drunk, wept, cursed the Soviet government, and even said that if not for his wife and two kids, he'd escape from this prison together with me. He fell asleep on my bed. I could have exited the building, but there were quite a few guards around, and I didn't want to get this man in trouble. So I woke him up and he went home.
Where were you serving your sentence? And on which penitentiary regime?
All political prisoners serve their sentences on a high security regime. I served my sentence in labor camps for political prisoners in Mordovia starting from January 17, 1967 in camp no. 11, and then camps nos. 3, 19, 17, and no. 17-A, where I met Yuri Galanskov. In July 1972 we were taken to the Perm Region. Some of us were sent to labor camp for political prisoners no. 37, and I was sent to camp no. 36.
How did you find yourself in Vladimir Prison?
I was sent there along with 45 others for taking part in a protest strike. An officer hit a Ukrainian prisoner by the name of Sopilyak. We stopped working and announced that we were going on a strike. Initially they put us all in punishment cells, then gave us two months in what is called a "cell-type facility" (a prison within a labor camp), and then we got three years in the Vladimir Prison. We arrived in Vladimir and were given cabbage soup for lunch. Which looked shocking. It was yellowish water with rare bits of cabbage swimming in it. And nothing else. We refused to eat it and demanded to see the boss. "I haven't seen the boss in over six months, and who on Earth are you?" responded the warden. We told him that the boss was soon going to be distributing food to us personally.
We called the duty officer and demanded to see the official document showing standard food ration norms. He laughed at us and told us this information was secret. We gasped. Then we got in touch with prisoners who were serving their sentences for criminal offenses, told them who we were and asked them to pass a note outside, to Moscow. We told them we were going to sort out the mess in this prison. And they helped us. We wrote in our note that we were going on a hunger strike. We described how we were being fed. A week later a group of inspectors flew in from Moscow. Because the media in the West started to talk about political prisoners starving in the Vladimir Prison. Soon after prison governor colonel Zavialkin began to distribute vegetable soup to us. "See," he would say, "Here are your potatoes, here are fried onions, and here is cabbage — all in line with the official food ration norms." These official food ration norms now hung on each floor. Everyone was in shock. The criminals went numb, and the wardens walked around with straight backs, silent.
The criminals were fighting for their rights using primitive methods. They'd defecate into a gash bucket, stir it, and pour its contents all over a warden, getting him from head to toe. Then they'd get beaten and put in a punishment cell. And afterwards everything would get back to how it was before.
But what we did was find out from the criminals who in our prison got beaten, who got killed, and then we would write our complaints and letters of protest. The criminals would send us their court verdicts and we would write appeals. As a result, many had their penitentiary regimes changed and many got transferred to camps. Some had their sentences reduced. One prisoner whose last name was Moroz and who was sentenced to 15 years, got released, when it became clear that what he did did not constitute criminal wrongdoing. I write about his case in my book “Horrid Stories".
The criminals would help us by giving us bread, sugar, and butter. Sometimes they would even send us money, and we would buy food from inmates who served meals in the canteen. For this kind of help I express my gratitude in my book to thieves whose names are Givi and Dzhungli. I had promised them I'd do this. They passed our information to the outside world and helped us with everything.
From Vitold Abankin's novella The Stars of Zlatoust: Beastliness surfaces more readily in prison, when people start assuming that there isn't anyone around them who they should be playing a role for, or in whose company they should feel constrained. But those who truly are real human beings will remain human.
Was there anything that was particularly hard to bear in the Vladimir Prison? And how did you manage to keep you spirits up?
We were defending a just cause, so strength just came. Nothing seemed scary, and we fought for Truth and Justice, and did not dwell on how to protect ourselves. Everything came easy: hunger strikes, time in punishment cells, everything seemed a piece of cake. There was one time when I had been on a hunger strike for 35 days, and on day 13 I was walking on my arms in my cell. The wardens were grinding their teeth in fury. The more pressure they put on me, the more strength to resist I gained.
I gained strength from my innate sense of justice and from my discontent with the situation I was in. Every time I am being put under pressure, I immediately start gaining enormous strength, the kind of strength that moves mountains. The more you pressure me, the more strength I will have — a kind of crazy passion to squash those who try to violate my freedom. It wasn't out of the blue that I wrote this poem when I was 16. It shows my nature:
Freedom is never gifted, it's not a fruit that falls from the sky.
Freedom has to be fought for, with a fiery heart, by everyone.
You can't have freedom while kneeling,
So get up, throw your shoulders back!
You, the one crippled by shackles!
Breathe in the air that’s free,
Grasp the banner of liberty tighter!
Don't mind the death and its scythe.
Step firmer, and enter the battle!
Vitold Abankin practicing gymnastics on the roof of his house, aged 65.
That is why when I got acquainted with Yuri Galanskov, I saw how similar we were. Even our poems are similar. He was born on June 19 and I was born on June 15. This means a lot. We are fighters for Liberty and Justice. Let the death threaten us with its scythe. The more it does, the more strength I have.
From Vitold Abankin's short story The Investigating Officer: We have helped a lot of people in Vladimir. Many got their sentences reduced, twelve people got released, and many were transferred from prison to labor camps. The authorities hated us deeply, but couldn't do anything. We fought for Truth and Justice, and that meant we were on God's side, and God cannot be defeated, not ever, not by anyone.
You, perhaps, apart from you inner strength, also possessed considerable physical resilience.
When I was young, I wanted to be a pilot. I have already passed all the medical examinations, but stupidly told one guy that a helicopter was an easy vehicle for escaping abroad at low altitude. When I went back to get my test results, they told me I wasn't suitable for medical reasons. Although earlier they told me that my health was excellent and that I could come in and get my papers. Sometime later I understood the reason. That guy told his father, and the father worked at the flying club. Thankfully he didn't tell the KGB. They have simply decided not to accept me to avoid future problems. During the summer I divided my time between the flying club and River Don. I used to swim across the entire River Don. My house was 700 meters away from it. Then I got interested in weight lifting and in 18 months got my first-class sportsman certification in light weight. I also was a member of a motor club and got my second-class sportsman certification there. But after I bought a motorcycle, I left the motor club. At the same time I was also into acrobatic gymnastics. But the Novocherkassk massacre landed me in labor camps.
But despite your fortitude and courage, horrible things were happening in the Vladimir Prison, as well as practically everywhere across the entire Soviet penitentiary system.
Here you can see the answer sent to me by the prosecutor's office regarding the murder of an inmate in the Vladimir Prison, who was a World War II veteran, and who lost an arm in combat. The authorities sent him to prison following his conflict with bureaucrats when he attempted to apply for housing. While in prison, following our example, he began to write complains against the wardens and against the guards, and also against Lieutenant-Colonel Ugodin, Deputy Head of Prison Regime. And while the authorities were rather cautious when it came to political prisoners, that particular inmate was thrown into a sweatbox cell and murdered there, following the orders of sadist Ugodin. He personally watched through the peep hole how his henchmen were carrying out his order. The guards themselves told us about it. We wrote complaints and letters of protest from prison, and when I got released, I kept sending letters regarding this case. And this is the kind of answer I have received. It would be good to publish it now, when Russia is preparing to celebrate its victory in World War II.
The official reply Vitold Abankin received from the public prosecutor's office of the USSR on June 1, 1990: "Your testimony has been reviewed. Your claim regarding the alleged fact that the process of inflicting bodily harm on inmate Tikhonov by his cellmates Bagrov and Barinov, which allegedly took place in penitentiary facility no. OD-1/st-2 in the town of Vladimir in 1975, was being observed through the observation window by Deputy Head of Prison Ugodin has been checked, and has proven to be false. Earlier the prosecutor's office had conducted an investigation into this alleged fact, which you had already been informed about."
How did you get to know Vladimir Bukovsky?
It was in the Vladimir Prison, in 1975. I was sharing my cell no. 21 in the prison building no. 4, with Alexei Safronov, who was serving a 12-year sentence for his attempted escape from a military troop unit in East Germany.
The door suddenly opened and an extremely thin person came in, dragging a sack full of books behind him. He sat down on the bunk bed, recovered his breath, and said, "Guys, I'm Bukovsky." We knew about him, but we have never met him in person. And here he was, in our cell, and we talked until the early morning. The guards have long since banged their keys against our doors, signaling bed time, but we talked and talked.
Bukovsky was telling us about the Chronicle of Current Events and was thanking us for supplying information to this samizdat periodical. He told us that we weren’t forgotten and that people on the outside were doing all in their power to help us. He told us about the recent events on the outside, about samizdat. And we told him all the labor camp news, in detail.
By that time we had spent quite some years inside, and he got his sentence relatively recently, so he was a fresh convict. He told us about Andrei Sakharov, whom he knew well. Then he took a photograph out of his sack, carefully glanced at the door, and whispered: "Guys, from now on we are calling Sakharov "Uncle Andrei", understood?" And pressed his finger against his lips.
Every day Bukovsky pounded his English books, and often drew castles. He liked castles. Of course, he was well-read and his logical thinking was impeccable. Nevertheless, I turned out to be right on one issue we used to argue about. He used to say that after release we had to remain in the country and campaign. While I thought that we weren't going to be able to do any campaigning, and would be sent right back to prison instead. My opinion was that one should emigrate and campaign in the West. Which he ended up doing, after they exchanged him.
By 1976 we knew that we were soon going to be released. The letters we were receiving from the outside contained such hints. Mind you, we were receiving letters not only from our families, but also from people we didn't know. Many letters weren't passed on to us by the authorities — because they contained hints — but some managed to get through. However, we didn't know what exactly was being planned in our regard.
How did he imagine campaigning being successful? Your father, for example, thought that the people weren't ready to resist the authorities. Were Bukovsky's views about the people formed by his intelligentsia circle in Moscow? How well did he know the realities of ordinary people, do you think?
He simply thought that campaigning in Russia was very important. And I agree with this. However, campaigning wasn't something that we were going to be able to do. We all had secret police following us. How many people could a former convict re-educate? Only a few. And then he would receive a new prison term — up to 15 years. This is where such campaigning would have ended.
The West, however, offered limitless opportunities. The Soviet Union depended on the West tremendously. So the West and Western citizens needed educating regarding the red empire which was a threat to the entire world. The West could and should have pressured the Soviets on all fronts, with tough measures, up to diplomatic disengagement. It could and should have refused to allow the Kremlin autocrats entry to the Western countries. This was how I saw those things. Nowadays the West should put similar kind of pressure on the Kremlin.
Do you have any joyous memories connected to Bukovsky about your time in prison?
I remember how in 1975 I made a cake for his birthday. I saved up sugar beforehand, bought margarine in our prison grocery shop, and caramel candy. Then I asked the prison nurse for some antiseptic green dye, and for iodine. On the radiator I dried white bread crusts which were supplied to us by fellow inmates, the criminals. Then I cut the bulk of the bread into thin slices and put them on a shelf so that they would get dry. I took the candy and dissolved it in a tea cup, so now I had syrup. While doing all this, I was making sure Vladimir wasn't going to notice.
He was always immersed in books and in his inner world anyway. In the morning, after breakfast, the inmates were led outside for a walk. I didn't go. I whisked margarine and sugar together, adding water. Then I laid out the bread and spread the cream all over it. I also spread it on top and sprinkled the cake with bread crusts which I ground into crumbs. It already looked pretty. I added the green dye to some of the remaining cream, made a piping bag out of cellophane and squeezed leaf-shaped decorations on top. Then I added iodine to the rest of the cream and squeezed out reddish flowers.
Then the door opened — the guys have returned from their walk. I managed to make that cake in 35 minutes. Vladimir was speechless. Everyone began to say "Happy birthday." The guard's eyes popped: "Where have you gotten the cake from, Abankin? Who brought it?" -- "Well, you did,” I said. “Stop playing dumb. I won't rat you out." -- "Are you out of your mind, Abankin? Do you want to land me to jail?" Everyone began to laugh. I cut a slice and gave it to the guard. He munched, praised the cake, and I gave him the recipe. He said his wife was going to try it out. Then we brewed some tea and celebrated Vladimir's birthday, not knowing that in a year's time he would be exchanged for Luis Corvalan.
When did you find out that Bukovsky had been exchanged for Corvalan?
When Bukovsky was taken to be exchanged, it was out of the cell that I shared with him at the time. But we didn't know where they were taking him. It looked like a routine procedure — they told him to gather up his things and exit the cell. He left, and later — through criminal inmates — we found out that he had been taken out of prison. Then, when the press began to write about it, we found out that he had been exchanged. It was impossible to write to him after I got released, because my so-called "oxygen" had been cut off. Initially I was still receiving letters from friends, and then all communication stopped.
Have you ever had any conversations with Bukovsky about Yuri Galanskov? And if so, what was he saying about Yuri?
Bukovksy was Yuri's friend. They together participated in poetry readings by the Mayakovsky's monument in Moscow. Bukovsky would organize Yuri's exit after the readings so that the KGB wouldn't seize him.
There is a book titled "Yuri Galanskov" where Bukovsky talks about Yuri at length. We were both taken out of a labor camp in Mordovia in 1972. The authorities didn't want to send Yuri by prison transport because they thought his health would give in. And then in November we found out that Yuri had died. We were in shock.
We gathered outside, at a dining table in our camp. We brewed some tea, found some sweets and biscuits. This was a wake. And we sang a song titled "Black Crow". The guards and the KGB men began to tell us to break up. But we weren't paying attention to them and kept remembering Yuri.
And then suddenly something happened to me. A strange force gripped me and I was unable to move. And suddenly, in my voice, but in a kind of distorted voice, someone began to speak: "When the Soviet regime falls, we should not forget to rebury Yuri in Moscow." Everyone stared at me. This wasn't my voice, and I was pale like a death mask. The guards and the KGB were in shock. And then that force released me, I went limp, and began to stare around me, and couldn't understand what had just happened.
We kept returning to that occurrence and discussing it for a long time. Much later, after many years, I understood that a prophecy had been conveyed through me, that the USSR was going to fall in our lifetime.
It was me — not his relatives, or friends, or people who live in Moscow — who reburied Yuri 19 years later. It was as if someone pushed me and said, "Go," and I went to Moscow, and found myself on the barricades.
From Vitold Abankin's speech about Yuri Galanskov on August 29, 1991, at a labor camp cemetery where he died, the day before the reburial: I could talk about Yuri Galanskov for days. But what shows his character in the vividest way is a story that occurred in May 1972. One of the labor camp guards was walking toward our camp across the forest and found a small baby owl. He brought the baby bird to us. We had no food to give to it. I went to the canteen and gathered up a small ball of meat fibers which the inmates took out of their soup and gave to me. But this ball of meat fibers only allowed us to feed the baby owl twice. Then someone found a can of fish. This can lasted for two days. And then Yuri — at first in secret, and then openly — began to give small pieces of meat out of his own rations to the baby owl.
This meat was the result of our hunger strikes and industrial action walkouts which we staged to demand healthy nutrition for him (Yuri Galanskov suffered from a stomach ulcer which he had died from -- AO). So this was a so-called "hospital diet,” and the prison nutrition classifier graded it as “6-B". You were supposed to get this type of diet only every other month, and only if your behavior was “good." But Yuri's behavior was bad. He constantly took part in hunger strikes, in industrial actions, and wrote complaints. So every month we had to go into a lot of trouble to obtain nutrition for him.
And now he was giving his tiny piece of meat or his tiny bit of patty to the baby owl. I began to have arguments with him about this, but there was nothing I could do. So the baby owl grew up and turned into a big bird. It was tame, used to ride on the inmates' shoulders, and liked to sit over the pool table and watch the game. And Yuri's health was gradually giving in. We saw that he was slowly dying. The global community raised its voice in defense of his life and his health and tried to fight for his release. Honest people in the USSR too stirred in defense of Yuri Galanskov. But all efforts proved to be useless. The bloody Moloch of the evil empire demanded human sacrifices, and Yuri became one of them. Yuri firmly stood on his proverbial barricade, did not give in, and died for freedom and justice in our country, as a true fighter.
From Yuri Galanskov's letter to his sister Elena: Don't be a skirt, be a woman. But be mindful of the fact that it is not easy to be a woman. There are many skirts around, and women are few and far between. What men want from a skirt is "a piece of fur". But men respect women and they love only women. A beautiful skirt is fiction. Any woman becomes beautiful when lit from the inside by her own human beauty. Remember this well. Most girls decorate themselves with pieces of textile and with paint, but it doesn't make them beautiful. This is the greatest delusion a skirt can have. Zabolotsky says it well in his poem:
What is beauty? A vessel?
Or a fire gleaming inside?
From Vitold Abankin's introduction to his novella The Bridegrooms: Women are a special matter. They suffered and continue to suffer just as much as men, but their suffering is one hundred times harder to bear, because they are more sensitive and more tender. It is easy to destroy a woman. You don't need much to achieve this — all you need is a handful of heartlessness, and a portion of insolence — those same things one needs to stamp on a beautiful flower. But in addition to all the suffering that men also have to bear, women suffer due to their very nature, having to give birth to humanity — a feat that should be immortalized in monuments all over planet Earth. But this isn't where their suffering ends. A woman's biggest pain is often inflicted on her by her man, her husband. She can be beaten, humiliated, abused, and betrayed. And all this she has to bear alone, on her tender shoulders, in her suffering soul, in her affectionate, tender heart. So how is she to persevere? How not to lose herself, how not to lose faith in men and in life itself? And what about us? Who are we? What is our purpose? If the Mother of humanity — our wife, our sister, our child — suffers more than us?
Irina Georgievna Kondratskaya, Vitold Abankin's wife, standing by a house in Rostov-on-Don built by her great-grandfather. The ring was used to tie horses.
Irina Kondratskaya aged 17.
Vitold Andreevich, tell me about the trip you took to visit Andrei Sakharov after your release.
My 12-year prison term ended on August 4, 1978. Just before that I was in labor camp no. 36 in the Perm Region, not too far from the village of Chusovoi. I was in the "cell-type facility" — a prison inside the camp — until the every end of my term. They began the process of my release on August 1 and took me to Rostov in a small YAK-40 aircraft. At first prison transit took me to Volgograd in a Stolypin car (a carriage for transportation of large numbers of convicts — AO), but they were running out of time and put me on a plane. Five escort guards with naked guns accompanied me. I tried to strike up a conversation with them, but they replied that they weren't allowed to talk to me.
But you are a useless kind of prisoner if you can't find a way to talk to a guard. I would typically spark their interest by telling them about the Novocherkassk massacre and mentioning the fact that my uncle was an Admiral. Five minutes later they put away their guns and moved closer to me. I had two suitcases full of books with me. I opened them, showed them books, told them about Sakharov, Solzhenitsyn, Bukovsky, Galanskov, and others. As we were approaching Rostov, I had an idea to suggest to them to escape to Turkey. I think they would have agreed. They became anti-communists.
In my lifetime I have re-educated countless numbers of criminals, convoy officers, and privates. We landed in Rostov at midnight. Until morning I slept in one cell with criminals. They tried to provoke me and start a fight. This was typical of the KGB, but I managed to re-educate them too. So they became "enemies of the people," just like me. In the morning they took my photograph.
At 1 p.m. they searched me in a big hall with a long desk. They laid out all my books, and I began telling them the same things I told to the escort guards: about Novocherkassk and my uncle the Admiral. There were 15 of them, and their mugs all looked alike.
I later found out that they were prosecutors. I talked at them for two hours, amidst deadly silence. And I finished with the following words: "You know full well that the communist party brought our incredibly rich country to a dead end and to the brink of a political and economic abyss. There will be no communism, and the Soviet government will fall. In 10 to 15 years you will lose not only your shoulder straps, but your lives."
And then, amidst the silence, we heard one tiny voice: "How can we release a person such as him?" I said, "I am not planning to start a revolution in Rostov. I will receive an invitation and will leave for the U.S. or for Europe. And you will be left here waiting until the time when people will start ripping your heads off."
They brought me to the gate. The captain who was on duty approached me with interest — he's already heard about the speech I gave inside. I spent an hour with him, describing to him what our country's future was going to be like. Then I borrowed three rules from him for a taxi, put my suitcases inside and went to my sister's house.
The next day I received a money transfer from Alexander Solzhenitsyn and went back to the detention center to repay the captain. He too ended up developing anti-Soviet views. (Thirteen years later I was walking down the street in Rostov, and suddenly a man touched my arm: "Do you recognize me?" His face looked familiar. He said, "I was your escort guard on that airplane in 1978." Then I remembered him. He said, "I quit that blasted service and now work in a factory, and keep thinking about you often, how right you were about everything." )
When I got released, I had six bundles of information in my stomach — six sheets of cigarette tissue paper covered in tiny writing. They contained details about all the newly arrived convicts in the labor camp, a few things about future plans, and other information.
These papers were rolled into small tight tubes, wrapped in two layers of cellophane, and swallowed. During the entire time I spent in prison transit, I ate only three times and drank only three times, because otherwise I could have lost my bundles. When I was in the toilet, guards would watch me through the peep hole.
Vitold Abankin's prison discharge card. Due to a clerical error the "ethnicity" field says "unmarried" -- the fact which once made Andrei Sakharov"s wife laugh.
My father died ten months before my release, and I moved in with my sister. In the evening of August 5 I took a Moscow-bound train from Rostov. I was careful not to be seen when I was boarding the train. My ticket was bought for me by a stranger whom I asked to do this for me. I was hiding behind the carriages, and when the train began to move, but the doors still remained open, I caught up with it and jumped on the step board of the last carriage.
While preparing for this trip I bought a thick, troubleproof piece of rope... I knew that the KGB was on guard 24/7 by the entrance to Sakharov's apartment block, dressed in police uniforms. The KGB was also on guard by his apartment door. So it would have been impossible for me — a freshly released convict with a prison discharge certificate for an ID — to enter his apartment. So I decided to meet Andrei Dmitrievich in another way. I knew that his building had a fire escape and was planning to use it to climb on the roof, fasten the rope there somewhere and then descend to his apartment window. I didn't want to scare Andrei Dmitrievich or his wife. If they saw a man in their sixth-floor window, they could have cried out, and the KGB men would then hear it. But I thought that I'd find a way around this predicament. Either I would pass the information through the vent pane, or climb inside the apartment and calmly talk to them.
But none of it came to pass. At 1:30 a.m., as we approached Likhoi Station, the train was stopped. Policemen with searchlights and my photographs in hand jumped inside. They were waking up sleepy passengers, shining flashlights in their faces, and looking for me. Everything was in a state of frenzy. As they were leading me away, I overheard people saying that a dangerous criminal had been caught.
I spent the night in the railroad station's police duty room talking to captain Yarygin. I told him about the Novocherkassk massacre and about people serving sentences in labor camps and prisons, and why they had been put there. I told him that political prisoners are on the side of the people and against the totalitarian government which had managed to make people destitute and disenfranchised in one of the richest countries on Earth. I told him about my family relations in high places, and that I could have had a job in the Kremlin, but chose prison instead because I thought that the Kremlin was swarming with liars and butchers.
By early morning the captain was ready to grab an axe and run to the Kremlin. He told me that he was releasing me and that I was now free to travel to Moscow. But I did not want him to bear the consequences, so I decided not to go. I told him that the Soviet government was going to collapse in 10 to 15 years' time because the communists have already brought the country to the brink of a catastrophe. In the morning the escort guards arrived and put me on a train back to Rostov. I was warned that any attempt to escape would result in another prison term, that I broke all possible passport regulations, etcetera, etcetera.
When we arrived in Rostov, I was taken to the prosecutor's office and was warned one more time that I was going to get another jail term if I tried again to travel to Moscow. I was placed under observation and told that I was not allowed to leave my house from 8 p.m. to 6 a.m., that I could not visit public places, could not visit restaurants, cafes, etc. I laughed and asked them if I could enter public toilets, or whether I was supposed to do my business in the street corners. The prosecutor replied that I was under observation. And looked at me meaningfully. Then he added that the authorities were not going to allow me to break the law. And then he told me that I had to check in at my local police station twice a week. I told him about the Novocherkassk massacre and warned him that soon he was going to loose his shoulder straps and perhaps even get a prison term. And I gave him a piece of advice: "Do not get too cocky." He heard me out and didn't say anything. This was a good sign. When I was leaving his office, he said to me: "Don't be offended, I am simply doing my job."
The information I was carrying inside me I managed to pass on to Leningrad, and from there it went to Moscow, where it finally reached Sakharov. Even though it got there in a roundabout way, it still got there on time.
Tell me about this photograph where you are seen together with Bukovsky looking at some files.
Vitold Abankin: This is us in the KGB building in Lubyanka Square on September 15, 1991. We can be seen studying case files of Yuri Galanskov. Those bastards have amassed 18 volumes on the guy! A KGB general brought us chairs so that we could sit. They all looked rather frightened. One of them told us about that day in August when tanks entered Moscow. His wife woke him up: "Get up, you fool! Tanks are rolling into Moscow!" He told us they didn't have a clue what was going on. That was, actually, the time when the people should have grabbed them by the scruffs of their necks and thrown them out.
From Yuri Galanskov's letter to his parents: We are shaped by our powerful instincts. Our instincts teach us loyalty and they make traitors out of us too. That is why we embody Loyalty and Betrayal all at the same time. We know the price of Loyalty and the price of Betrayal, but it is a grave mistake to assume that "people lean toward evil." It's the opposite — evil is always abhorrent to humans. So humans project evil as a dark and satanic Unknown. For humanity evil is a burdensome necessity which it keeps forever fighting. Inside, within the depth of their spirit, humans remain good, and crystallize everything that is good as morality and project this crystallization as, for example, the Ten Commandments. These Ten Commandments, like ten pearls, ten revelations, become part of the religious systems. And any religion is a colossal, towering projection of the gigantic splendor of human spirit.
Vladimir Bukovsky speaking at the Mayakovsky Square rally in Moscow on Sep. 1, 1991.
Vitold Andreevich, you have organized a rally following the reburial of Yuri Galanskov. How did the rally go?
After Yuri's reburial Bukovsky made a speech by the Mayakovsky monument. It was a good speech. Bukovsky came to Moscow on August 25, and I went to Mordovia on the 28th, to bring back Yuri's remains. I returned to Moscow on the 30th. The funeral and the rally took place on September 1. Yeltsin dispatched Galina Starovoitova to the rally. He himself couldn't attend because he was receiving a delegation from abroad. I found guys who could provide sound equipment. They brought a huge amount of equipment but it ended up not working. The guys themselves were in shock and told me that the day before they had checked it a dozen times and it was working.
So we had to use a loudspeaker. I wasn't inclined to pay them. Our contract was for 450 rubles. But Bukovsky told me to give them the money. After all, the guys have put in effort, and felt horrible. So I paid them. Bukovsky was one of the pallbearers. The funeral service was performed by Gennady Gavrilov, a Baltic Fleet officer who spent 6 years in prison. He and I were together in labor camp no. 17-A together with Yuri. Gennady later became a priest.
From Vladimir Bukovsky's speech by the Mayakovsky monument on the day of Yuri Galanskov's reburial:
It’s me, calling for truth and rebellion
Not wanting to serve anymore.
I rip away your dark trappings
Woven from lies.
And I won’t — in order to eat
Cut the fruit which grows on a grave.
I don’t need this bread of yours
Kneaded on tears.
I fall and I rise
And I feel the blossoming
Of humanity in me.
Today, when the communist regime is falling apart, when communist leaders are scattering in all directions — like rats — I would like to remind you: From these words, which were pronounced here 30 years ago, from these very words of Yuri Galanskov's poem "Human Manifesto" free speech began in this country. The same way as free press was born at this very place, taking root from the uncensored collections of poetry.
We have to give them their due — the communist party leaders immediately appreciated the full danger of our free speech. Participants of those poetry readings 30 years ago, as well as participants of the human rights movement which too has its roots here, have been paying with years spent in prisons, labor camps, and psychiatric jails. Some have paid with their lives.
But even death was unable to stop repressions. Yuri Galanskov's body was not released to his family and his friends. And only thanks to their efforts his grave has been discovered.
Naturally, repressions didn't come to us as a surprise. We knew they would come. We also knew that few were going to hear our voices. Our only platform could be the defendants' dock. And we knew that the country which was so used to repressions, was unable to respond immediately. But we also knew that we had no other weapon apart from our words.
You cannot defeat violence with violence. You cannot outsmart a deceitful government. It will always have tanks and prisons at its disposal, and the only thing that we will ever have are our words. We knew that a country where ordinary honesty is perceived as heroism at best and as a mental disturbance at worst, is a wretched country. Such country will never provide sustenance. A nation which has run out of dignity is woe-ridden because its children are born crippled. And if such country and such nation is unable to produce a handful of people who haven't lost their dignity, such nation will not survive, and such country will perish.
Each one of us could have lost the spark of inner humanity that Galanskov wrote about. Today, however, we can proudly say: The process of spiritual liberation which began at this very place 30 years ago, hasn't died out. In the face of the communist party's loud-voiced bombast, our free speech survived and gained strength. They could neither suppress it, nor manipulate it. And again, as in the days of our youth, recently each person began asking themselves a question: "Are you able to step out into the public square? Do you have courage to step out into the public square?" Now we see not a handful of people declared insane, but tens and hundreds of thousands of people jam-packing our squares. And tanks stop on their tracks.
Yuri has not survived to see this day, just like Anatoly Marchenko, Pyotr Grigorenko, Vadim Delaunay and Alexander Galich. But they — along with the three young men who died this August defending the Parliament — have done everything in their power to make this day happen. Now, when our country has legitimate government, the time has come for Yuri to return to Moscow from his long exile in Mordovia.
We, who are still alive, need to do a great deal more in order to prevent the red plague from returning. We shouldn't delude ourselves — the dragon isn't dead yet. He is mortally wounded, and his spine is broken. But he still holds in his grippy clutches human souls, as well as many nations. And again, as 30 years ago, we have only one weapon — our words.
The KGB archives which have been seized by the Russian government, contain secrets of horrendous crimes — past crimes, present crimes, and, perhaps, even future crimes. Only by making them public and by handing them over to an impartial international commission, will we be able to clean ourselves from this filth. Only this way will we fulfill our duty to the memory of millions of people whose forgotten graves have still not been found.
Vladimir Bukovsky was one of the pallbearers at Yuri Galanskov's reburial on Sep. 1, 1991.
What kind of impression did Bukovsky get from the Russian reality when he first came to Moscow after all those years in the West?
When he arrived in Russia, he had a bank card, but no cash. While I was jumping from tank to tank, I ripped my sports shoes. He took me to a shop to buy me a new pair, or a pair of dress shoes. We went from store to store and there was nothing. They weren't accepting bank cards either. He was dumbstruck. He told me that in South America and in Africa stores have long since started to accept cards. We spent two days trying to get cash. When we went to the bank, they took his card, wrote down the details, took some kind of letter to the manager to get it signed, and only then gave us the money. It was awfully uncivilized.
Then he went to Gavriil Popov, the Mayor of Moscow. He wanted to purchase a small building which used to belong to partisan Davydov and make it our office and our gathering place. Popov named him the kind of price that made Bukovsky gasp. He told him that in England one can buy a huge ancient castle for that sort of money. And added that greed had made him loose his mind. So they fell out.
At that time the parliamentarians of the Supreme Soviet announced a hunger strike. We went to see them and were astonished. They had sacks of sugar, boxes of tea, parcels of biscuits. We told them to quietly put that all away, otherwise their hunger strike was invalid. So in the evening all the parliamentarians went home. Bukovsky was astonished that parliamentarians were so ignorant. And when he educated them, they lost all their determination. "Those power-hungry idiots! They will make things so much worse!"
Then they passed a piece of legislation which forbade anyone who hadn't lived in Russia for the past 10 years to become President. It was directed specifically at him. Levko Lukyanenko is another such example. He spent 27 years in prison for his efforts to fight for the independence of Ukraine. He served two prison terms. After his release he arrives in Ukraine and is being met by the former communists who are now pretending to be democrats. They welcome him, kiss him and... send him to Canada as an Ambassador. They are getting rid of him, so that he doesn't become President. I asked him, "How did you allow them to trick you so blatantly?" He answered, "I have just been released, I was still in my prison robe, I knew nothing. They hug me, cheer me, compliment me, and immediately send me away as an Ambassador. I didn't get a chance to open my mouth." The reds were scared that something would happen akin to what has happened in Czechoslovakia, where Havel became President.
Vitold Abankin and Levko Lukyanenko in the exercise yard of labor camp for political prisoners no. 36 in 2004.
Tell me about your activities and initiatives after the collapse of the Soviet Union.
I became the founder of two human rights organizations. One was established in 1994 and was called "The Human Rights Union". It was an umbrella for several organizations. But people began to gradually leave, and I ended up shutting it down in 2004. Then an entrepreneur got in touch with me who had heard about me and suggested we open another organization and offered to finance it. So this is how "A Way to Justice" was born. At that time one could still run operations such as these. The media, including television, newspapers, and radio were regularly asking me for information. They would publish it, and the authorities would get angry, but couldn't do much, because I was the assistant to Sergei Kovalev in the GosDuma (the lower house of the Federal Assembly of Russia — AO). I have managed to do quite a lot — to get people housing, to sort out landfill dumping issues, to build roads.
On this photograph you can see "before and after" images of a natural water spring called Gremuchiy. There was a time when the Germans used to take this water back to Germany. And our people have created a dumping site here. I sent this photograph to Brezhnev, and described in a letter how the Germans used to value this water. Officials got reprimanded, and now you can see the difference.
And here is the road leading up to the spring — before and after. Again, I sent a photograph to Mikhail Kasyanov, who at the time was the Prime Minister, and soon workers arrived, who took away the trash and paved the road.
The authorities were apprehensive of me, and parliamentarians were fearful. One of them said to me: "You have done time in prison, so you are allowed a lot of things and people are apprehensive of you." And I replied, "So why didn't you spend time in prison? If you are incapable of doing any work, why are still in parliament? Leave!" I also used to bring presents to kids in orphanages, and things such as bedding, paint, and fans to detention centers during heatwaves when prisoners were announcing hunger strikes. Many people to this day call me a parliamentarian, but I've never been a parliamentarian. And never wanted to be one, because parliamentarians in our country have their hands tied. So there were people who envied me.
Vladimir Bukovsky's close associate at Resistance International — Albert Jolis — recalls in his memoirs that some dissidents envied Bukovsky. Do you think he ever noticed any kind of envy?
I haven't been noticing that. Perhaps there were some who envied him, but if so, they weren’t showing it publicly.
Do you ever feel rage when you think of how people such as Yuri Galanskov were destroyed by the system? Or has the rage now subsided and what remains is simply sadness?
Not only anger or hatred are boiling in me. This is why I’ve always tired to disrupt that regime, and the current regime too. In the fall of 1990 I was distributing anti-Soviet flyers in Rostov-on-Don. I would do it in public squares, streets, parks, and would put flyers in mail boxes of high-rise apartment buildings.
One evening the wind was very strong, so I would put a pile of flyers on a public bench, use a small stone as a paperweight and quickly leave. A gust of wind would move the stone, and the flyers would scatter all around. One street didn't have any stones lying around, but there were quite a few cats. I bought a pound of sausage, asked the grocer to cut it in pieces, and used them instead as paperweights. After seeing me leave, the cats would grab the sausage, and the flyers would scatter in the wind. This was nine months before the fall of the Soviet government. Local policemen who I knew would later tell me that they were woken in the middle of the night and ordered to go and collect those flyers.
Army privates were ordered to do the same. All in all they collected 400 flyers, while I have printed 4000. Elena Bonner, Andrei Sakharov's wife, found my story about flyers and cats quite moving. I have given ten such flyers and the rubber stamps I used to make them to the "Memorial" civil rights society in Moscow.
In 2000 I was offered to remain in Germany. But life in Germany is so easy, and people aren't preoccupied much with problems, given all the social security that they have. Everything there flows so smoothly, along a well-oiled track.
As for me, I am somewhat deformed by this inhumane system. I used to dig an escape tunnel in the labor camp, I used to print flyers with appeals to fight the authorities. While in labor camp I wasn't unhappy — I was fighting the system. I would display the UN flag, distribute flyers, expose the snitches, secretly pass information to the outside world, re-educate the wardens, and persuade them to send my letters to the outside. This was my life. I feel bored on the outside. I am used to risk, I enjoy danger.
Vitold Abankin in the former KGB prison in Potsdam (now a museum) in 2000.
I once knew a fellow prisoner in labor camp no. 36. His name was Yuri Vasiliev. He and his sister highjacked an aircraft in Leningrad trying to escape to Sweden. But the pilots have managed to lock the cockpit and message land. They landed the plane in a clearing in the woods. This clearing has already been surrounded. Yuri at first managed to escape. He was a former paratrooper and knew how to fly an airplane, and was supposed to fly it to Sweden following the highjacking. His sister was caught immediately and received a 13-year sentence. His brother-in-law was shot in the woods — he was armed with a sawn-off gun and killed one of the policemen. Yuri was sentenced to 11 years. He was a good-looking, athletic guy.
The wife of camp commander Major Kotov was the head of its medical unit. So one day Yuri felt sick and went to see her. She listened to his chest through the stethoscope and... suddenly began to caress his naked torso. Yuri was dumbstruck. He came running to us, not quite himself, and told me everything. I gathered the other guys and we began to decide what to do. If you go along with such advances, the opportunities opening for you could be amazing. But what if this is a provocation? Imagine — a political prisoner standing accused of raping a doctor... We voted and decided not to pursue this. This is the kind of milieu I have spent my entire term in.
In March 1967, in the labor camp for political prisoners no. 11 we, young prisoners, were summoned to the main office. I was the first one to go in, because of my last name. So I enter the office. There is a desk there and a case officer behind it. The door leading to the neighboring room is half-open. The case officer immediately began to persuade me to start snitching on my fellow prisoners. I felt overwhelming rage. I leaped over his desk and began strangling him. We both fell to the floor. The case officer began to wheeze. From the neighboring room a KGB man came running in and started to pull me away. I ran out of the office building: "Guys, they tried to persuade me to be a grass, I've strangled the case officer". Then we began to write letters of protest to the prosecutor, and to Andropov. "Do not go when the case officer calls you to his office.” We wrote about a dozen letters of protest. Тhe KGB made fools of themselves and got reprimanded. I got off — I wasn't even sent to the punishment cell. Rumors began circulating about me in the camp that I wasn't quite right in the head. So if I stayed in Germany, I'd hang myself in a week.
Vitold Andreevich, tell me about the time when you displayed the UN flag in the labor camp.
On December 10, 1948 the UN General Assembly adopted the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. And every year on December 10 political prisoners in the USSR would go on hunger strikes, protesting against human rights abuses in the Soviet Union. Mind you, this wasn't a protest exclusively against abuses of the rights of political prisoners, but a protest against human rights abuses throughout this huge totalitarian empire, which formally declared those rights, but put people in prisons and physically destroyed them for mentioning them. Those rights were being declared in the USSR simply to pull the wool over the eyes of the world and to pretend that human rights existed in the USSR.
December 10 had always been a terrible day for the Communist Party of the Soviet Union. Soviet embassies in many countries would close on that day and embassy employees would stay in. Rallies and picketing would take place in front of Soviet embassies with placards displaying anti-Soviet slogans, and slogans were being shouted through loudspeakers. People were demanding release of Soviet political prisoners and respect for human rights in the USSR. Sometimes the embassies would get rotten eggs and vegetables thrown at them, or get an inkpot through the window. European governments would send letters of protest to the Soviet government demanding release of Soviet political prisoners.
In 1973 in the labor camp for political prisoners no. 36 in the Perm Region, ahead of December 10, the administration was taking extra security measures. About a dozen guards were constantly on standby, KGB men in plain clothes were walking around, and the main office had its lights on all evening. But I have managed to make a UN flag with its emblem, which I drew with a marker pen on a piece of paper and glued onto a bed sheet. I brought the sheet into the living quarters, although the search was incredibly thorough. But you are a useless convict if you can't trick the guards.
On December 10 the living quarters were swarming with snitches. Snitches were typically old men who had received their 25-year sentences for collaborating with the Germans during the war. At first they were being sentenced to capital punishment. But then their sentences were being replaced with 25 years of imprisonment, and they were repaying the Soviet government for its benevolence with ratting on us to the KGB at every turn. But not all of them were like that. Many old men showed compassion and helped us.
I managed to get to the attic of the main office. And inside, by the roof window, I fastened the flag. I the morning I would pull it out by a piece of string which I threw outside in the hands of my friends, together with the spool. But they didn't do as I told them. Instead of wrapping this white string around the building of the main office, which was also painted white, they stretched it to the neighboring barrack, and it became visible in the light of a lantern which hung on a pole. As soon as I jumped from the attic and landed on the ground, the camp's snitches ran, trying to outrace each other, to the guard post to tell the guards about this strange string they saw.
That evening Captain Rak was on duty. (In Russian the word "rak" means "cancer" -- AO). We used to say that the Soviet government in our camp was represented by cancer. Rak and his wardens were afraid to go to the attic, thinking that somebody could still be there. Finally Rak yelled at one of the wardens and he — shaking with fear — began to climb up to the attic. Soon he reappeared, holding my flag, and threw it under Rak's feet. Captain Rak began stamping on the UN flag, while shouting something incomprehensible. The only words we were able to make out very clearly were the obscene words. Then he called the UN a fascist organization.
That same evening we wrote dozens of complaints to all kinds of echelons of authority, telling them that Captain Rak stamped on the UN flag and shouted obscenities, insulting an international organization which the USSR belongs to, and called the UN a fascist organization. After that the captain couldn't get promoted to a major for a long time, and he openly began to curse the UN, its flag, and those who "sat in the Kremlin." And we laughed at him and used to tell him that if someone would bother to write a report to certain authorities, detailing his rhetoric, he would soon find himself imprisoned, just like us.
What kind of work were the convicts forced to do in the camps?
Labor camp for political prisoners no. 11 was one huge industrial enterprise which produced furniture. We were making tables, chairs, wardrobes, drawer units. In 1967 this camp had 1,875 convicts. Every night a railway train would roll in, and the cars would get loaded with furniture. Poet Valentin Sokolov worked as a loader. I was transferred to camp for political prisoners no. 3 in September 1969. There we were making steering wheels and spring bolts for Volga automobiles. That camp also had criminal convicts. The KGB men set them against us. So in order to harm and hurt "the enemies of the people," they burned our welding units, welded the locomotive to the rail track, and threw our tools in the toilet. The KGB became horrified, and we laughed at them. One month later I was transferred to the labor camp for political prisoners no. 19. This is where we were making watch cases for the Berdsk Watch Factory. In the fall of 1971 I was transferred yet again to labor camp for political prisoners no. 17 where we had to build a sewing workshop. Later they brought in women who sewed prisoner robes and overalls. The next fall they transferred me to a neighboring camp no. 17-A where I met Yuri Galanskov. In July 1972 I was transferred to the Perm Region where camps nos. 37 and 36 were located. In camp no. 36 we were making heating elements for clothes irons. Steel tubes were to be filled with spirals and periclase sand, which was being supplied by Sweden. When our guys discovered that periclase came from Sweden — by reading the labels on the barrels — we wrote about this to the outside world. An international scandal developed. Sweden became accused of assisting the USSR in abusing its prisoners. So Sweden stopped delivering its periclase to the Soviet Union. Our production stopped for longer than a month. Then we started receiving periclase again, but of lower quality.
Vitold Andreevich, you were given such a long prison term. Have you ever had thoughts about escaping?
By the time I arrived in camp no. 36, I've already had five years of camps behind me, about ten transit prisons, and an experience of the KGB prison in Potsdam. I looked around the camp and noticed that the guard post was not too safe, and could be seized in ten seconds. The library building stood too close to the prohibited zone. The bases of its walls were high, which was convenient for digging a tunnel underneath, as well as providing space for extracted soil. I gathered the guys who I knew from labor camps in Mordovia, and told them: "Are you up for building communism for the reds? Or are you up for an escape?" Everyone wanted to escape. I proposed to storm the guard post, grab their weapons, and run for the woods, and then to go to the nearest town and start distributing flyers there. The other option was to dig a tunnel underneath the library building. We voted. One single vote determined the outcome: We were to dig a tunnel.
The next day they took us to work. I found a shovel, made it thinner and sharper, and shortened its handle. I found a piece of textile, a hacksaw, and a thick rope. All of this I took to the living quarters. In the evening I got hold of an old pair of trousers and an old jacket, and made two sacks for soil out of them. Then we went to the library. The other guys checked out a load of books, staged an argument and began to shout. Meanwhile I was sawing the floorboards and making an access hatch. When done, I sprinkled some dust over it.
On day three Alexei Safronov and I went to work on the territory of the camp. We went to the basement and began to dig vertically. In two days the vertical passage was ready. It was 140 centimeters long. Then we began to dig horizontally. While one person was digging, the other one was taking out sacks of soil with the help of the rope. In a week we managed to dig seven meters. We were now in the forbidden zone and had eight meters more to go. A Jewish convict whose name was Mark Dymshitz, was going to escape with us. In 1970 he made an attempt to highjack an airplane and fly to Israel. He received a 15-year sentence.
Then an elderly convict approached me in the camp. I knew him from my time in Mordovia, and he respected me for my spine. Many, in fact, respected me for the fact I wasn't afraid of the wardens and confronted people head-on. "Vitold, I saw the new Lithuanian guy who you are friends with," he began, and looked at me cunningly. "He went to the main office and was very careful to make sure nobody saw him. Have a think about it. He is in the main office as we speak." I thanked him and called Yuri Vasiliev and Alexei Safronov. The three of us began to wait. Then we saw the Lithuanian guy come out of the main office. I came up to him. "Come," I said, "I have something to tell you." We went behind the bathhouse building. "Tell me," I said, "the purpose of your visit to the main office." I suddenly saw fear and tears in his eyes. He said: "They summoned me, and the KGB man said, 'You are digging a tunnel with Abankin. You have signed a certain paper when you just arrived here, and nevertheless you are not informing us about this tunnel. How about I tell Abankin that you are a snitch?' Guys, yes, I signed that paper, but they have tricked me! They told me that the convicts in this camp are former nazi collaborators, fascists, and used to skin people alive, that they are planning an uprising, and if I keep them informed, they were going to reduce my sentence. Only later did I realize that the people in this camp are the same as me — that they are against the Soviet government. I felt ashamed, but I don't know what to do now."
I realized that the idea with the tunnel hasn't worked out. I told him to go and tell the KGB man that I was going to be alone in the tunnel on Saturday. We had this conversation on Thursday. And that same evening I went to the tunnel, took the shovel, the sacks, the clothes, the candles, and buried it all behind the toilet. On Saturday morning the case officer, the head of the camp, and the KGB Major Afanasov, accompanied by soldiers, entered the camp. Major Afanasov used to be a penitentiary captain, but then transferred to the KGB and became a major. I knew him from my time in Mordovia. And I used to set him straight a quite a few times.
The soldiers went into the library building and broke the floorboards. I wasn't there. Nothing was there. Then I came out of the barrack and looked at the KGB man. He saw me and stood there dumbfounded. He tried to light a cigarette, but matches kept breaking in his shaking hands. I came up to him and whispered: "Major, do you want to keep your shoulder straps and your very life? If so, tell your superiors that this tunnel was dug some time ago by convicts who are not in this camp anymore."
The tunnel was poured over with concrete. None of us got punished, not even with time in the punishment cell. Apparently, the Major was more worried about his own skin. Later we found out that it were the neo-communists who ratted us out: Yu. Fedorov, V. Chamovskikh and V. Chekhovsky. They thought we were traitors. They hoped that the one who rats us out would get released, and would then arrange things for the release of the others. They considered themselves true communists and fought against the Communist Party of the Soviet Union. All other people in their view were subhuman. As usual — if you encounter a communist you can be sure that he is both a scoundrel and an idiot.
Did the convicts have any unofficial methods of resisting the tyranny of the camp administration?
In labor camp no. 36 there was a Deputy Head of Regime — Major Fedorov. A rare kind of moron. He was provoking us all the time and making us start industrial actions and hunger strikes. One day he decided that convicts weren't supposed to have any objects on their night stands. Once he entered the barrack and saw a printed brochure on a convict's night stand, which lay face down. He grabbed it, threw it on the floor, and began stamping on it, while yelling, his face distorted. The convict picked up the brochure, and said, "You are stamping on the Constitution of the USSR." This idiot froze for a second, and then snatched the Constitution out of the convict's hands, and yelled, "This Constitution is not for you! It's for the negroes!" He then threw it on the floor and began stamping on it again.
We wrote a great number of complaints. He was removed from the camp for a month, and then returned. He used to avoid confronting me head-on, but played dirty tricks on me behind my back. When Alexei Safronov and I arrived in the camp after our time in the Vladimir Prison, we saw that all convicts looked rather gloomy. And Alexei and I were full of fighting spirt. "Why do you all look so glum?" I asked them. They told me that Fedorov was really making their life difficult, cancelling family visits and sending them to punishments cells for small transgressions.
And suddenly I got a brilliant idea. I asked Alexei to pass me a piece of grid paper but not to touch it with his hands. I then wrote along the square grid lines: "An assassination attempt is being planned against Major Fedorov. Signed: Well-wisher.” And Alexei put this piece of paper in the mail box for special mail, where we used to put all our complaints. We never saw Fedorov again. This is how the system works: once they receive the information, it doesn't matter if it's true or false, because if turns out to be true, heads will roll. So they prefer not to take risks.
Is there a funny occurrence you could remember from you life in the camp?
We once had a convict by the name of Vanya Popadichenko. He got his sentence for glueing political flyers onto doors at his university. Everyone was going mad because of them. People kept popping out of their rooms and auditoriums all the time to check if there was a flyer. Then they caught him and sentenced him to 6 years. He was a big, strong guy, but a terrible hypochondriac. And all of us convicts had a good sense of humor. If you don't have a good sense of humor in a camp, you'll end up in a lunatic asylum. So one morning I told him: "Vanya, your face has a kind of yellowish tint to it. Are you sure you don't have jaundice?" Poor Vanya. His face changed, he didn't go to work that day, and went to see the doctor whose last name was Petrov: "Doctor, I have jaundice. May I have your note releasing me from work. And please start treating me." — "Who told you that you are ill?" — "Abankin did." — "Well, then let Abankin write you a note and treat you. You are completely healthy." — "You bloody bastard, you quack, I'll wring your other leg too!" And Vanya began chasing the doctor around his desk. The entire camp had a laughing fit. One of the doctor's legs was limp. Rumor had it that he had been once beaten by the criminal convicts in the camp. Afterwards the KGB men summoned me: "Abankin, don't you have better things to do? Why did you goad that fool into chasing after doctor Petrov? What if he hit him or did something else to him? You would have been punished too."
How do you think an honest person should live in Russia these days?
It was extremely difficult to remain an honest person in the USSR, almost impossible. And the same goes for today's Russia. There was a well-known axiom in the Soviet Union that people knew: "If you don't steal, you won't survive." Here is an example. A man has made a backless stool and tries to sell it. The stool is well-designed, nice-looking, hand-made, beautifully carved. You can't buy a stool like than in a shop. This isn't mass production. The man is taken to the police station. And there he spends a long time persuading them to let him go. In the end they do, but they take his stool, as a kind of bribe in exchange for his freedom. Otherwise he could have received a jail term for "unearned income."
All initiative was suppressed. Without approval of the communist party one couldn't do anything. The Kremlin was in charge of everything. Senile old bolsheviks still stuck in their civil war mentality of "military communism" continued fantasizing about world domination and believed that they were surrounded by enemies. They turned the country into one big concentration camp where people did not properly live, but adapted themselves to the grim reality. As a result, a truly new type of individual has been cultivated. When surrounded by others, this type of person would say what the authorities demanded of him. With his family members he was more open, but still restrained himself. And only with those he was really close to could he say what he really thought. What kind of life is this?
Vitold Abankin's daughter Inna.
There was an apt saying: We work the way we get paid. People knew that the state didn't give a damn about them, that the state humiliated them, and repressed them. This was the kind or state where everyone was deemed the same — be it an intelligent person or a not so intelligent person. As a result, individuals did not respect the state. They even hated it.
A few years ago our local newspaper "Evening Rostov" published an article about a man who invented a pump that could lift up crude oil to great heights. Apparently, this used to be a problem. He based his invention on how human heart works. He spent some time trying to sell this invention of his, but no one was interested. So he gathered up a bit of money and immigrated to Norway. And people there were in awe of his invention. He received funding, opened a lab, hired people, and now Russia purchases these pumps from Norway.
Only yesterday everyone was destitute, and today so many paths are open. The bolsheviks destroyed religious faith, replaced God with Lenin and with the communist party, which taught people to base their actions not on their conscience, but on fear. Nowadays rare few truly believe in God, which means that their conscience is rather dull. Neither do they fear the communist party, which is no more. The result is utter rampage. Because temptations are all around.
Here is another example. An old woman had died and left her son a small house. He sells the house and buys a Mercedes-Benz. Which means he now has nowhere to live. He lives in his car and makes a living driving people. If his car breaks down or gets stolen, he will become homeless. This kind of thoughtlessness has its roots in the communist past. During that time life was destitute and things were simpler. You could easily find work for peanuts, and each factory had a communal dormitory for its workers. People were used to these kind of conditions and never planned their lives in earnest. Whereas in a capitalist society you have to think about your present and even more about your future. Our people are not used to thinking. The party did all the thinking for them.
An engineer I know went to Moscow to present his project for a waste recycling plant. He used to tell me that burning waste is akin to burning banknotes. In Moscow they listened him out and told him not to come back. It turned out that the crooks in Moscow have bought decommissioned waste incineration equipment in Germany and were using it. They spent peanuts and were now receiving huge profits. They couldn't have cared less about the environment. Money to them was more important. Grab your money and then do a vanishing act — that is their philosophy. Why make effort inventing something or building something? They treat the state exactly the way the state treats them. Their methods are to lie and to steal. People who have managed to swindle the state are considered smart and many see them as heroes. This can't be normal, can it?
In a country of swindlers and rogues and honest person is an enemy, especially if that honest person has some kind of initiative. The system has been created to force people to swindle and to steal. And those who do, know that what they do is illegal, so they won't speak up against the authorities. And if they do, authorities will come to their home and will start making calculations. How did you manage to buy such a nice house? What about your car? Your furniture? Your jewelry? Where does it all come from? And so on. Because a salary will never allow you to buy any of it. And then they can give you a prison term. This is why everyone keeps silent. This practice and this method has its roots in the Soviet days, and to this day keeps everything under control.
Once in Berlin my translator and I passed a man in the street. My translator said, "Do you know who this is?" I had no idea. She told me that this man was a member of the European Parliament. He was simply walking down the street without any security guards accompanying him. Whereas in our country a man can own two tiny kiosks — a little larger than a telephone booth — and he already employs security guards. He is scared someone would kill him. And someone with a bit more money than that has two vehicles full of security guards inside. Here is a story from the Soviet times. An accountant in Rostov once jumped out of her own 5-story window when people from the Department Against Misappropriation of Socialist Property paid her a visit. What they found in her house were a few cases of wine and vodka under her bed, a couple of hundred of cans of canned meat, sacks of sugar and boxes of sweets. Did she have a good life? She went to bed every night filled with fear, and woke up every morning filled with fear. A tiniest noise would startle her.
An honest person has fewer health issues, sleeps well, and lives longer. But our state doesn't share this view, because at the helm of our state we have people from the past. They are unable to build a new Russia, so they have built a copy of the USSR. They make their own lives a misery and other people's lives too. Some people have it all, and others have nothing. An honest person, when he knows that the state needs him and takes care of him, and respects his rights, will respond in kind. He will work like an honest man, will give his all, will be inventing new things, will show initiative, and will help his country make progress. Not only he himself will benefit, but the state will benefit too.
Our people say that thieving and stealing will persist regardless. But in Georgia Mikhail Saakashvili took only a few months to eliminate bribetaking among the country's road police ranks. He discharged everyone, and hired new, young people. Gave them good salaries, and established a rule where even the smallest transgression would lead to sacking, to time in prison, to seizure of property. And the reform went well. Money incentives are the strongest incentives of all. Our pensions are tiny -- 8,500 rubles a month. Half of it goes to pay energy bills. I call this kind of pension "die slowly." I have read somewhere that in the West pensioners get free tickets to the cinema, to concerts, to the theatre. Which means that they have meaningful lives. But in our country they are seen as spent material no one cares about. No one cares how these people will live. And this kind of attitude is reflected back at the state.
Russia is a fantastically rich country and could become heaven on earth. But it is ruled by people from the past, who — following an old habit — have created heaven on earth for themselves, leaving the rest survive as they wish. In 1917 the power was seized by criminals, and now we reap the consequences. Why did the Kronstadt rebellion take place? (The Kronstadt rebellion of 1921 was an insurrection of Soviet sailors, soldiers and civilians of the port city of Kronstadt against the Bolshevik government -- AO). The bolsheviks were getting fat, seizing houses of rich people and making them their homes. They pillaged and accumulated wealth in their newly acquired mansions. They forgot completely about the people. So the sailors demanded fulfillment of the promises that the bolsheviks have made earlier -- representation in the Soviets of all strata of society, multi-party political system, and free market. They were all killed. And for 75 years the bolsheviks kept abusing the country. An honest and free person, however, can be much more useful to his country — which he will respect — than a person who is repressed and humiliated.
But we have miscarried bolsheviks in power, who don't even know who they are. Russia has a new revolution ahead of it. Not a coup, the way it happened in 1917, but a full-blown revolution which will sweep away this filth which makes it impossible for people to have decent lives. There will be blood, and it will take the country back in time. If the government realizes it, then it should start introducing reforms. If not, then I don't envy this government. See, how sad it all looks. But this is Russia, and any other scenario looks unlikely, given that our country stands on its head due to efforts of morons and thieves who have seized power.
What we see happening in Russia right now is a result of its communist past which still has a hold on people. Young people are beginning to think critically, but such people are still few and far between, and they are leaving the country. My wife has a friend who recently went to her high school reunion. These former high-schoolers are now 65. Seventy percent of them have grandchildren who have immigrated to the West. This is catastrophic statistics for such a huge country. If our government refuses to understand this, then it means that this government is hostile toward its own country, and the people should overthrow it. Russia needs a tough, just, and honest person at its helm. Otherwise it will perish.
Interview by Alissa Ordabai.
In the second part of his interview with the Soviet History Lessons web site, Vitold Abankin continues to recall time spent in confinement, goes back to the turbulent days of August 1991, and shares memories of his friend and former fellow prisoner Vladimir Bukovsky.
Alissa Ordabai: Vitold Andreyevich, your development as a citizen began with the massacre of workers in Novocherkassk on June 2, 1962. How did you learn about what had happened that day? And what was the atmosphere like in the Rostov Region at the time?
Vitold Abankin: Although I grew up on River Don and rowed boats and swam all summer, in winter time I also wanted to swim — but in the pool. So I would go to the pool twice a week. I practiced water polo and was a striker.
And so, on the second of June — one still couldn’t swim in River Don, the water was still cold — I was done with my water polo practice at two in the afternoon, got a bus into town and got off at the corner of Voroshilovsky Prospekt and the main street called Engels Street (now it is called Sadovaya, as it was called under the Tsar), by the huge diary store called Masloprom. Across my shoulder I had a blue sports bag with a white inscription which said “Volna” (meaning “Wave”- AO). I was in a gorgeous mood. Vacations have just begun, so there was no need to go to school. It was summer time. I was 16. Everything around me was blooming, it was a sunny day, and I was walking down the main street of the city. I had plans to spend that evening with my bride-to-be... And suddenly two men in civilian clothes approached me.
"What's in your bag?" one asked and began to unceremoniously unzip it and rummage through my things. And inside was a wet towel, a pair of flip-flops, swimming trunks, a washcloth, and a bar of soap. “He has nothing,” the mans said to his partner. And then pushed me lightly in the back: "Go." And I went, stunned! I had not clue what the matter was. Thoughts swirled inside my head. I was completely disoriented. I went to the Globus bookstore, and again two men came up to me and I got searched again. I was completely in shock! Two old women were standing by the doorway to the store, and one, seeing how they searched me and my surprise, beckoned me with her finger. I came up to her as if in a dream state. “Son,” she said in a whisper, “everyone is having their bags searched, today people were shot in Novocherkassk.”
And at that moment something came over me. The street disappeared, as well as all the people and these women. And I saw the city square, people running, covered in blood. I heard terrible screams, and dead bodies lying on the pavement. And that’s all. It lasted a few seconds. And my eyes opened. I realized what was going on around me. I saw policemen dressed as civilians, wearing pants with blue stripes at the seam. I saw police motorcycles on the traffic markers.
As I continued walking, I approached Gazetnyi Lane. Three guys emerged out of it, stopped at the corner and stood there talking. At once plainclothes policemen rushed to them and ordered them to disperse. The guys began to argue back. They were seized and dragged into an alley, and there stood a police van. They pushed them inside. I walked on and saw a group of excited people who were walking, whispering, and looking around. They tried not to walk on the main street and to use the side alley instead.
They searched me again on Semashko Lane, but I was no longer surprised. People were not allowed on the other side of Engels Street. There was a motorcycle with two policemen on the traffic marker, and by the entrance to the building of the regional communist party committee there was a crowd and police with a dog. Opposite from the regional committee building there was the movie theater called Komsomolets. The screening was stopped and people were being led out. Everyone was being searched, pockets were turned out, women’s handbags were examined, and everyone had their hands inspected too. I could not understand what the reason was. And later I found out that someone had drawn a swastika on the doors of the regional committee. So the authorities were looking for chalk.
I walked on and got searched by the Moskovskaya Hotel for the third time. Then I turned onto Budennovsky Avenue, got on a bus and went home. I now had a plan to make a bomb and throw it at the building of the regional committee, to avenge the dead.
Once I got home, I took the some money and went back to the city center. The Dynamo sports goods store had a hunting department where they sold guns, cartridges, and gunpowder. I bought two packets of gun powder for 1 ruble 40 kopecks and returned home. I went to my father’s shipyard and found a piece of pipe 6 cm in diameter and 40 cm long. I brought it home. I flattened one end of the pipe. And I slightly flattened the other end too, but not completely. Then I put a nail inside the pipe and finally flattened the other end. I withdrew the nail and began to pour gun powder into the hole. Then I made a fuse. And then my father finally got home from work. He took the bomb away from me and said, ”Until the all the people understand who is deceiving and exploiting them, the efforts of loners will remain futile."
General Lebed, with whom you were friends, witnessed the execution of workers in Novocherkassk first-hand. What is known about his impressions?
Vitold Abankin: He was originally from Novocherkassk. He was sitting on a tree when the workers got shot. Another boy who sat on a neighboring branch, got killed. Lebed ran home covered in blood, and later developed a stammer and a bed-wetting problem. Imagine surviving such horror! When he ran for president, some villain made a public written statement along the lines that we don’t need a president who wets his bed. The bed-wetting story had been a secret, but someone found out about it, and exploited it in this vile way. His problems later passed, but the hatred for the commies didn’t. He told me that he joined the communist party in order to harm it from the inside and to try to topple it.
When the question was being decided whether Bukovsky would be running for president, I talked to Alexander Ivanovich (Lebed — AO), and he said that he respected Bukovsky tremendously and would support him with all his might. He emphasized the words “with all might”, that is, he hinted at the army resources which were subordinated to him. I relayed this to Bukovsky, but he avoided discussing this issue.
When I voiced the idea of a monument to the massacred Novocherkassk workers, Alexander Ivanovich promised to pay for a block of marble to be brought to Novocherkassk. As you may know, the nearby city of Krasnoyarsk has a marble stone quarry. And I told Bukovsky about this. He spoke to Ernst Neizvestny, and Ernst said that he was prepared to design this monument free of charge. The only thing we’d have to pay for would be the workers’ labor cost. Bukovsky said, “This is not a problem,” and promised to take care of this side of the issue.
Were there any sketches left, or drawings?
Vitold Abankin: Things didn’t get as far as sketches. Ernst might have thought of something, but Bukovsky never mentioned.
What do you think of General Lebed’s cause of death?
Vitold Abankin: When I tell people that the general was killed, they are horrified — they don’t believe such things are possible. Then I give them examples, such as the assassinated Bulgarian poet Markov, or how they made an attempt on Solzhenitsyn’s life, or how people were shot in Novocherkassk. And my opponents give in. Where there is KGB, there is no morality, no conscience, no honor, no compassion, nothing. I talked with his pilots. Both they and I agree that he was killed.
The helicopter flew in bad weather at low altitude. Only a complete idiot, knowing that he is surrounded by the hills, by 30-meter-tall pine trees, and some 50-meter-tall high-voltage power line poles, could drop the altitude to such a minimum. And his pilots used to fly in the Afghan mountains and were precise down to each centimeter with their rotor. That is, they were not just flying aces, they were tightrope artists. So they suddenly became suicides? Or were they drunk? Nonsense! Their altimeter was out of order. There is a movie called Children of Captain Grant. In that film a pirate places an ax under the compass, and the compass starts showing the wrong direction. Same thing with that helicopter. The investigation results are classified.
Judging by your stories, you were a rather extraordinary teenager. Would you share an interesting episode from your childhood?
Vitold Abankin: As a kid I was interested in the subject of space exploration, and so I made rockets. At first they were small and ran on celluloid film. The film burned, emitted smoke, and the rocket flew. Then I started making larger rockets. They flew 300-500 meters. I lived near a DOSAAF airfield (DOSAAF stands for Volunteer Society for Cooperation with the Army, Aviation, and Navy — AO), and one day I dragged home a spare aluminum airplane tank. The idea was to make a rocket out of it and fly to the Moon. I used to launch rockets with Ira, who at the time was my bride-to-be, and now is my wife.
I had a friend (he died last year) by the name of Leonid Kadobkin. His father had a rifle. So one day I made a 170-centimeter-long rocket, stuffed with film, and we went to the airfield to launch it. And this moron poured a packet of gunpowder inside that rocket. We launched it, and it flew beautifully. And then we saw a helicopter landing. And at that moment our rocket exploded. The pilots got scared. We ran to the cemetery — to hide. But they caught us and brought us to some kind of basement, full of barrels of oil, fuel and so on.
One of the pilots said, "Now the prosecutor and the judge will arrive, and you will be sentenced to death." And I replied, taking a box of matches out of my pocket: “I’ll make some music before I die.” He got so scared, they pulled us out of the basement, gave us a kick in the ass and told us to get lost. But after a couple of days we again started to bring pilots apples, pears, apricots and flew with them in airplanes and helicopters. Ira was away on holiday at the time and regretted not seeing the explosion.
Your innate courage found its perfect use in August 1991, when you found yourself in the thick of political events. You came to Moscow from Rostov to rebury the remains of poet Yuri Galanskov — to transport them from the labor camp where he died to the Kotlyakovsky cemetery in Moscow. You sold your new car for this purpose. And suddenly you found yourself at the epicenter of a historical shift. What do you recall from those days?
Vitold Abankin: On August 19 I woke up at the Rossiya Hotel at 5:30 in the morning because the building was trembling. I listened, but the corridor was quiet. Everyone was asleep. I left my room and went to the window. And began to look at the Kitaisky Driveway. And I saw moving tanks. I ran back into the room and called Gleb Yakunin (Russian priest and dissident, and elected member of the parliament from 1990 to 1995— AO). He said, ”Vitold, it’s a coup! Go to the Moscow City Council! I'll be there soon." I called Boris Evseev, a film director who lived on the same floor as me. He woke everyone up and we quickly left the hotel. A tank was standing right in front of the entrance, and a yawning officer was strolling around it. We asked him what was the matter. "We were raised at night by an alert, and ordered to move here. Here we stand, and we don’t understand anything." We were filming with two cameras — a VHS and a film camera.
We started walking toward the Moscow City Council. Tanks and armored personnel carriers were moving along the road. Near the Moscow City Council there were a lot of tanks and armored vehicles. Tankers were sitting on top of their vehicles, exchanging remarks. And then some girls appeared with red carnations and began to distribute them to the soldiers, thrusting flowers down the gun barrels. The soldiers were sleepy, but then came to life, started to smile, and helped the girls to climb on top of their vehicles. We filmed a lot. And then we decided to go to the Supreme Soviet. We took the subway and got off at Barrikadnaya Station.
The space around the Supreme Soviet was empty. Behind the building we saw dry tree trunks sawed into chocks. And then we saw a black Volga motorcar, which drove up to entrance number 8. Boris Yeltsin and the driver stepped out of the car. We waved at him, Yeltsin waved back and entered the building.
I told the guys that this was a serious matter and that we should start building a barricade. While the cameras kept filming, we started pulling wood chocks together and stacking them on top of each other. A few minutes later the people started to gather around the Supreme Soviet building. Some came with their hands tucked in their pockets, others were dragging metal rods, pipes, ramps, boards, slats and all kinds of rubbish.
Out of this, barricades began to grow. And after half an hour, trucks with foundation blocks and floor slabs began to arrive. A crane came with them and unloaded them all onto the pavement. Immediately the barricade became higher. A car came with pipes and rods. The guys laid it all on top of concrete slabs. The barricade was growing in front of our eyes and was already presenting a serious obstacle, baring its pipe-shaped teeth. No tank, much less a lesser kind of armored vehicle, would be able to overcome it.
Young people were singing all kinds of different songs strumming their guitars. It was fun, and no one felt any danger. I decided to go around the Supreme Soviet building. Anatoly (the cameraman) and Boris Evseev came with me. We would strike up conversations with people. I suggested that people bring a hacksaw which would help cut metal bars into pieces — so that people would feel armed. I also suggested that it would be good to buy bottled ammonia and, in case of an attack by the police, throw those bottles at cops. It would serve a high-grade tear gas. Several guys ran to the store.
We continued walking, and people would come up to me all the time and ask who I was and who was doing the filming. I told them that I had been in prison for 12 years, and that now it was our time to govern and we can’t afford to miss this chance. I would add that all heads of factories, production plants, and so on, should be immediately dismissed and normal, honest, active-minded replacements should be elected. Someone told me that these old bosses were professionals and could not be removed. To which I replied that these professionals led the country to a disaster, that their initiative had always been suppressed, that they were used to following instructions from above, that you could not build a new society with old cadres.
In short, I was initiating rallies. A geologist came up to me and said that he had just returned from an expedition to Magadan (a port town gateway to the Kolyma region in the Russian Far East, a region known for its GULAG labor camps and subarctic climate —AO). There he saw old labor camps being reconstructed and new ones being built. I had to urgently call Sergei Adamovich Kovalev (the legendary human rights activist — AO) at the Supreme Soviet about this, but all the street phones around the Supreme Soviet building were broken. This was the KGB’s doing.
There was a five-story apartment building behind the Supreme Soviet, and I went to one of the first-floor window. It was open, and an old lady was looking out of it, observing the goings-on. I asked her if there was a telephone in her apartment. I said that I needed to call the Supreme Soviet. She gave me the receiver, and I told her which number to dial. I informed Sergey Adamovich about the construction of camps. He replied that he would report it at a meeting that would be held any minute now. He asked me to come to the Supreme Soviet, but I said that here, on the street, on the barricades, history was being made — the exact thing we used to dream about about while in camps and prisons.
I walked away from the apartment building and started circling around the Supreme Soviet again. Then a Volga car drove up, and General P. Grachev came out with his personal aide. The Supreme Soviet was surrounded by a triple ring of people who have locked their elbows, so it was impossible to get through them. The general looked at each entrance to the Supreme Soviet in turn, and did not know what to do. I walked up to him and introduced myself. He told me his name. I asked if he wanted to enter the building. He replied that he had been summoned to a meeting at the Supreme Soviet. I took him along a secret path to entrance number 8 and handed him over to Sergey Adamovich Kovalev. This entire episode was being filmed.
We went again around the Supreme Soviet building. And again I told people about Sakharov, Solzhenitsyn, Bukovsky and other political prisoners. Valentin Alexandrovich Novolt, an artist, approached me and said that he had an idea to paint a series of portraits of political prisoners. Less than ten meters on, a young guy approached me, introducing himself, and saying that his place of work was the Tooshino police department and that their police chief lieutenant-colonel Shvidkin threatened staff, saying that if anyone went to the Supreme Soviet, that person would be fired. This guy was with his father, also a policeman. I went back and again phoned Sergey Kovalev. He replied that he was going to send a group of parliamentarians to that police department. And we walked on.
On my second round I met — it was already about 11 o’clock — the reporters from Izvestia, Ogonyok, XX Century and the World magazine, New Life magazine, Glasnost, Komsomolskaya Pravda, Slovo publishing house, and Vesti TV. Everyone gave me their phone numbers, and I later collaborated with many of them. New Life soon printed my short story, Anatoly or Five Stabs.
We were now approaching the front door of the Supreme Soviet. There were guards. I began speaking to the people again, and several guards came to listen. I asked them if there was any military personnel on the roof. I told them that the military could drop its troops on the roof from a helicopter. All the time everyone was wondering whether the Supreme Soviet building could get attacked. Two guards immediately ran to the entrance and began to talk to some colonel, and then quickly went in. Later, I saw armed people on the roof.
As we were circling the building, I saw tanks near the CMEA building (the Council for Mutual Economic Assistance —AO). Boris Evseev and Anatoly (the cameraman) said they had run out of film and needed to go to the store to buy more. I wanted to stay where I was and wait for them, but then I got an idea to speak to the commander of the tanks. And I climbed onto the lead tank.
A major leaned out of the open tower. I asked him why they were standing here. He replied that they had been given an order. I told him about General M. K. Shaposhnikov, who too had been given an order to drive his tanks at protesting unarmed workers, and how he refused to follow that order. Shaposhnikov ordered his men to give up their ammunition and did not interfere with the workers’ demonstration. The major replied that he was not going to shoot at people. However, my story about the massacre of workers in Novocherkassk and about General Shaposhnikov made a strong impression on him. His name was major Sergei Vladimirovich Evdokimov, and he gave me his various phone numbers.
I ran back to the apartment building to call Sergey Kovalev, but he wasn’t there. Some guy answered the phone and I told him to urgently tell Sergey Adamovich that Major S. Evdokimov was going over to the side of the people with his 10 tanks, and that several parliamentarians needed to come out of the Supreme Soviet carrying Russian flags and approach the tanks. I then returned to the CMEA building and began to tell people to remove pipes and rods from the tank tracks, since the major was now on our side.
Boxes of sandwiches were brought in, and I began to help distribute them. Then someone brought entire stretchers full of food, then more and more. Thousands of people needed to be fed. Bottles with different drinks were brought in too, as well as water. As I was walking around with a box of sandwiches, I saw guys sawing steel bars with a hacksaw. Boxes with ammonia bottles stood nearby. I told them they were doing a good job and handed them a box of sandwiches to eat themselves and to distribute among others. And then Vesti TV reporter Vadim Kukushkin came up to me with a camera, and I gave him a short interview.
As soon as he left, a man approached me and said that there were armored vehicles on the bridge near the White House. I ran there. Indeed, a dozen armored carriers stood on the bridge over the Moscow River. The commander was a lieutenant-colonel. He did not give me his name. I suggested to him — citing the example of Major Evdokimov — to go over to the side of the people. But he waved his hands, looking frightened, and said that he would be shot if he didn’t follow orders. Then girls came running with carnations and began to hand them out to soldiers.
“And if you are ordered to shoot at civilians, like it happened in Novocherkassk, are you not afraid to become a butcher and then go on trial?” I pressed on him.
“I will not shoot at people, I will not follow such an order.”
"So they will shoot you and make your soldiers kill people! Go on, stay alive and be a hero. I am talking to you on behalf of Boris Nikolaevich.” (Yeltisn —AO).
“No, no, I can’t. I'd rather get out of here,” he answered nervously and shouted to his men: “Turn around!”
Armored vehicles began to turn. By accident one struck another slightly, and sparks went flying. Five minutes later, the armored carriers have left the bridge.
And then I thought of something that made me jump. I had the address of General Shaposhnikov. He was in retreat from the Rostov heat at a house in the Moscow suburbs. I ran to get a taxi. But suddenly I got stopped by TV journalist Emilia Ashirnikova from RT channel, asking me for an interview. I briefly talked about myself and promised to bring General Shaposhnikov to the barricades. Then I was on my way.
This was my time, a dream come true, my hope for the collapse of the totalitarian system. My wings have grown. I wasn’t walking, I was flying. I kept meeting new people, ideas came pouring out of my head, and I was trying to implement them all. On the White House barricades I was like fish in water. This was my day, the day of our people, it was a universal celebration.
I came to the general’s house, but... his doctors have just left. Matvey Kuzmich (Shapashnikov — AO) was already 85 years old. But he was ready to go with me to the barricades, and he came out wearing his dress jacket and his Hero star, but his daughter wouldn’t let him go. She stood in the doorway, arms stretched out: “I won’t let you go! Do you want to get arrested? The strain will be too much!” I replied, “Please understand, this is our victory! The Soviet regime has collapsed. It tormented our people and your father, and now he will stand on the balcony of the White House, next to Boris Yeltsin and Major Evdokimov, who is also a tank soldier! Please understand, this is his finest hour!” But the daughter stood her ground and scolded me, and did not let her father go.
I went back to the White House. Major Evdokimov was already standing next to Yeltsin on the balcony. I started to look for Boris Evseev and Anatoly, but they were nowhere to be found. It was getting dark. Finally they appeared. It was too late to film, and we went back to the hotel.
This is how the first day passed near by the White House. Later, in early September, we still went to General Matvey Kuzmich Shaposhnikov and interviewed him. He was sitting in a chair under an apple tree. I gave him an issue of the Pravda newspaper and asked him to rip it up and say: "This is not the truth. This is a lie. Now I will tell the truth." From that moment on the camera started rolling.
Tell us a little bit about General Shaposhnikov.
Vitold Abankin: “I do not see any enemies in front of me” — this is how he answered on June 2, 1962 in Novocherkassk when ordered to go against the people. He was a military general who went through the entire war — from the beginning to the end — and at one point found himself in a burning tank on the River Dnieper. After he refused to follow orders they stripped him of his rank and expelled him from the communist party. The KGB threatened him with prison, but did not have the guts to actually put him there. They could not strip him of his Hero star either. He then wrote letters to various authorities, newspapers and magazines, denounced the anti-national regime, signing his letters "Vissarion the Furious." Years passed, things began to change. His rank and title were returned to him, but he refused to reinstate himself as a member of the communist party.
In 1991, the first rally was held in Novocherkassk, held by the democratic forces, which marked the 29th anniversary of the massacre. Matvey Kuzmich made a speech in that same square where they tried to force him to shoot at people. Each year I used to bring him to rallies in Novocherkassk on June 2. In 1994, he could no longer speak publicly — his health was declining. And three weeks later, on June 27, he was gone. Such people are the conscience of the nation. They determine its moral status. I am grateful to providence for crossing my path with Matvey Kuzmich. Maybe someone some day will be able to get hold of the footage which was shot in 1991 about General Shaposhnikov and which is a part of the documentary now held by the film studio in Yekaterinburg.
Vladimir Bukovsky, who in 1991 returned to Russia after 15 years away, was greeted by the people with much enthusiasm. How did it look?
Vitold Abankin: I especially remember one occasion at the Kosmos Hotel. Bukovsky was holding a talk there for the press and for the Muscovites. For over two hours he was answering questions and talking about the West and his life and activities there. And also about his exchange. The entire auditorium shook and roared with applause and praise. And then it was announced that the meeting was over. Alissa, the entire audience got up and rushed to the stage. The seats cracked. There was screaming, human bodies crushing against each other. A total nightmare. We ran out through the back door. The police ran with us. We jumped into a car and drove away. We were completely scared. A crowd is a terrible force. With all their respect and with all their love, they can crush you to death.
By the way, did you know that Bukovsky donated all the money he earned from the sales of his book To Build a Castle to Democratic Russia to support democracy? And the sum was very large. In the warehouse where the books were stored, a hot water pipe had burst, and steam damaged the covers of more than a thousand books. The book flew off the shelves. People were coming from different cities and buying thousands of copies of the book. Only the damaged ones remained in the warehouse. And then the coal miners come in a truck. They too have heard about Bukovsky’s book. And they were told that there were no more books. So they made a scene, and were shown the damaged copies. They took everything. These copies were given to them for free.
And how did the officials react to Bukovsky?
Vitold Abankin: Bukovsky spoke to various audiences in Moscow. I don’t remember what kind of parliamentarian it was, but the topic of their discussion was the economy. Bukovsky said, “Do you want to build Soviet socialism again? You have invited experts to conduct consultations who have no serious standing in the West. What you need now is a specialist in free market economy because you need to help the country recover as soon as possible. What you need is a free market specialist to help the country quickly. And to begin with, I would allow people own their own housing, this is the start.” The parliamentarian was making ridiculous noises, his eyes lowered. People were later allowed to own their own housing, but with great delay.
From Vladimir Bukovsky’s 1994 essay Yeltsin’s First Hundred Days: The “Privatization Cheques,” or “vouchers” as they are more commonly known in Russia, with a face value of 10,000 rubles each, were duly printed and distributed to every Russian citizen. But the popular response was lukewarm: No one knew what sort of the state property would be available for “vouchers.” Would it be something useful, like land or housing, or would it be a tiny piece of a gigantic and rusty factory, which would never be profitable? Meanwhile, the “vouchers” simply added yet another trillion or so rubles to an already uncontrollable rate of inflation as they went into circulation and became legal tender in Russia.
“Market reform” ended in Russia, leaving people twenty times poorer, more disillusioned and more angry. It could not serve the communists better: While the country still had neither democracy, nor a market economy, both ideas were utterly discredited. The outrageous robbery of Yeltsin’s first one hundred days completely obliterated from the people’s memory the crimes and oppression of the previous seventy-five years. Encouraged, the nomenklatura went onto the offensive, gradually forcing Yeltsin, first, to abandon his policies, then, to sacrifice his team, and, finally, to fight for his own political survival while his constant vacillations between confrontation and compromise only decreased his popularity.
Vitold Andreyevich, I would like to hear from you a personal recollection from your time with Bukovsky in 1991. You haven’t seen each other for 15 years, and then met again after so many years.
Vitold Abankin: Vovka (a diminutive from Vladimir — AO) decided to treat me to a meal and invited me to a restaurant at the Savoy Hotel, which was frequented by diplomats and similar kind of high-flying people. I brought with me Viktor Idolenko (who worked at the prosecutor’s office and traveled with me to Mordovia to recover the remains of Yury Galanskov), and who asked me to introduce him to Bukovsky. Victor brought his bride-to-be with him. The dining hall was all gold. A black musician was playing the piano under a palm tree. There were carpets everywhere and gilded tablecloths. Each table had its own waiter. So it was a flashy gesture on Vovka’s part. So they bring us these huge trays, and on each of those trays we see... six snails, red tweezers and a red hook which looks like a hook for crocheting.
"Vova, what the hell is this?" — I ask him. He says, ”Don’t be a barbarian. It’s a healthy dish — snails baked in garlic sauce. Look how one should eat them." And he shows how — uses the hook to pick out something black inside and eats it. And holds the snail itself with tweezers. There is tiny amount of food in there — less than a gram, smaller than a sparrow’s beak. But Viktor hadn’t eaten anything since early morning. "Vova, we are hungry, and you are showing off, like rich people do. Give us meat patties and fried potatoes. What you have here is disgusting. I saw such snails in Rostov crawling on the bushes by the dump. I’ll bring you a bucket of those for free." The waiter, a young guy, nearly fell over laughing. Vovka pouted.
Then they bring us a huge plate. On it sits a cabbage leaf, cut in an ornate pattern, the size of a third of a human palm. And in the middle of that leaf there is a small mound of something, like a sparrow’s dropping. Vovka turns his eyes upwards and eats it. I am having a go at him again: "Are laughing at us, you bourgeois? We’ll be leaving now. Give us something to fress on. If they gave you this sort of food while you were in your cell, you’d immediately start knocking and calling the guard." He flashed his eyes at me.
Then they brought ice cream. Which, in truth, was tasty. But portions were baby-size. We left the restaurant. “Vova,” I said, “we are now going to the hotel.” He was paying for my stay at the Rossiya Hotel. Everyone at the hotel already knew me there. We went to the hotel restaurant. I said to the head waiter Alexander Ivanovich, "Sasha, see who is with me? Let us have some simple food, without showing off, you know what I mean." So they brought us hot and juicy meat patties. Golden fried potatoes. Lovely salad. Cocoa and cakes. And Vova began to munch with much enthusiasm. “Vova,” I said, “Aren’t you already full, having eaten your snails?” And he pouted, looked angrily at me, as if I was his judge at a trial, and continued to chew with great pleasure. I am laughing as I recall all this. It is sad that he is no longer with us. In the end, I have never gotten around to visiting him. But no worries, I’ll see him again one day.
It’s lovely that your recollections have so much humor to them. Bukovsky shouldn’t be remembered as some kind of stone statue. It is important, I think, despite all his great deeds, that he is remembered as a real person, with all the funny episodes and Western habits he had acquired that overlapped with his Russian character. Savoy, for sure, even then, wasn’t a cheap establishment?
Vitold Abankin: Bukovsky paid 450 dollars for that “lunch.” I told him, "Vova, with this kind of money I could make a revolution in Russia." He wanted to impress us by showing off. And so he did. I don’t like restaurants. I’m used to eating at home, but if I go out, I go to simple eateries. In Rostov, in my youth, I knew a chef by the name of Victor, who worked at a restaurant downtown called Moskovskiy. One day I was walking past, and he stood there in the doorway, and said, "Come in, I'll give you something to eat." I went in. The restaurant was empty. He took a piece of meat from the refrigerator and began to prepare it to get cooked. And on the stove I saw a baking tray with meat patties. "What are you doing?" I asked. “Making you a meat patty." — “But you already have them cooked right here." — "What are you! Those patties are for customers!" And he said it with such contempt that I had remembered this for the rest of my life. He cooked a patty for me. I’ve never eaten such tasty food. In eateries you can get simple and quite tasty food, and restaurants offer the same kind of stuff, but at an exorbitant price, plus you have to wait.
Bukovsky’s analytical mind allowed him to predict great changes taking place in the communist camp in 1991.
Vitold Abankin: In 1991, the Poles offered him an opportunity to cross the border from Poland to Russia illegally. But Margaret Thatcher persuaded him not to do this. She reminded him that he still had an unexpired prison term and if something went wrong in Russia, they could put him in prison again, especially given the illegal crossing of the border.
From February to May 1991, his organization, Resistance International, trained 76 participants of underground resistance at a base in Poland. It also established a clandestine radio communications network center with broadcasting stations in Western Ukraine, Belarus, Lithuania, and Tbilisi. One radio station was located in the building of the Lithuanian parliament in Vilnius and broadcast at a time when the Soviet troops surrounded the parliament. In one of your newspaper interviews you once said that power should had been seized in August 1991, but human rights activists said that their job was to protect human rights, not to engage in politics. Tell me, why did this point of view prevail at the time? Why wasn’t power seized there and then? Why did communist nomenclature continue to govern?
Vitold Abankin: In May 1991 former political prisoners gathered at a congress in Moscow. Lyudmila Alekseeva and her supporters — people who were never imprisoned — was also in attendance. The question was about our participation in government of the country. Alekseeva fervently insisted that we were human rights defenders, and therefore should remain above political squabbling, and that politics was a dirty business, and we should have nothing to do with it. I could not stand it and spoke out, saying that it was precisely we who would have to make politics clean and open and that based on this very principle we should participate in governing the country. She was categorically against it. It got to the point where we got up and left. Sergey Adamovich Kovalev was with us. At the time there was a lot of reporting in the press about the split in the human rights movement.
So this was how it started. As for her, she became engaged in pure politics, and for that reason the authorities favored her. If she ever dared to go head-on against the government, a lot of things would be different, but she — perhaps without realizing it — tried to reason with the authorities. She began a dialogue with the authorities and thereby helped them violate human rights and grow strong. The authorities considered her their asset. I always criticized her for this, and she strongly disliked me. Did not even say hello to me at meetings.
Our mistake was that in 1991 we moved away from Boris Yeltsin, and he got quickly surrounded by adventurers and swindlers. He promised to hold elections to the Supreme Soviet in September, but did not fulfill his promise. In December the Moscow City Council member Ilya Zaslavsky criticized Yeltsin for this. Yeltsin got angry and said that if he had held elections in the fall, “rally democrats” would come to power and disorder would ensue across the country. Everyone was shocked by his words. After all, these, as he said, “rally democrats” took to the streets, led the people, and saved the country from the organizers of the coup. Then it became clear that the gains of 1991 were now lost. But the people remained silent and no one took to the streets. And then everything went back to the way things were before.
From Vladimir Bukovsky’s 1994 essay Yeltsin’s First Hundred Days: A society emerging from a totalitarian nightmare usually has no political or social structures capable of stabilizing it in transition except those created by and tainted by the totalitarian system. And they are most likely to oppose the changes, thus contributing to political instability typical for all post-totalitarian countries. The new institutions, although numerous and noisy, are usually tiny and weak to the point of merely symbolic existence. They are no match for the well-entrenched, all-pervasive, mafia-like structures evolving from the old regime. They are even too small to replace the governing apparatus and, therefore, the old nomenklatura remains in control of all executive functions of a presumably new “democratic” state.
It should be remembered that what we call “nomenklatura” is not just an ordinary bureaucracy, but a whole stratum of the society (18 million strong according to some estimates) with its own vested interests, its own connections with the West, its own accumulated wealth, and its own complicity in past crimes to unite its members. Its mere existence poses real threat to fragile democracy, to say nothing of its control over the executive branch of the government. Add endless ethnic conflicts, fantastic corruption, skyrocketing crime rate, general apathy of the demoralized population, and the task of transition becomes all but impossible.
Vitold Abankin: To expand on the issue of seizing power, bear in mind that each of us got to the camps independently from one another and got acquainted with each other only while already there. There were very few who knew each other from the time before prison. VSKhSON — which was a political party (and they even had weapons) — was planning to make A. Ogurtsov head of state. The KGB became alarmed when it found out about their existence. Multiple arrests were made in different cities. They already had a wide network, although it was not very large. They had a goal and they had a program. While each of us had his own separate case. That is, we were disconnected from each other before our arrests and we were not making any plans while in the camp. We simply fought for our rights which were being violated by the administration. And we still tried to reason with the authorities. Most of us, anyway. My opinion was that the Soviet regime should be overthrown, but many argued back that we have had enough revolutions and already got more than what we have bargained for in 1917. “Enough is enough” sort of reasoning. My opponents would insist that step-by-step changes were the way to go, and so on.
I’d also like to mention that the KGB men — who would be dressed in civilian clothes and wouldn’t tell us who they were — would now and then come to Vladimir Prison. The prison KGB man Obrubov would scape and bow to them, which meant that they were some kind of high-ranking KGB officers. They would call us in and ask such questions, for the answers to which free people go to prison. And for asking such questions people go to prison too. We thought that they wanted to know the truth about our country, because outside of prison gates no one would tell them the truth.
And we were subscribed to dozens of newspapers, magazines and knew more than ordinary people, and even at times more than those KGB men. After all, we did not work, only read, discussed the country’s domestic and foreign affairs, held discussions, drew conclusions, looked for hidden agendas. We taught ourselves to read between the lines and to decipher real meanings from behind the retouched Soviet verbiage of the newspaper articles. We were actually an analytical center, and the KGB wanted to know what the enemy was thinking.
Obrubov used to sit outside our door on a stool and listen to our conversations. It was his job to draft reports for the bosses. And his bosses were using those reports to come to their own conclusions. And by the end of the first year of our stay in prison, the KGB officers started to visit the prison and conduct interviews. On several occasions prisoners were taken to Moscow for re-education, but the re-education didn’t work. None of us wrote any pardon petitions, although this was suggested to everyone. I told the KGB man that if I wrote such a petition, he would be the first one to despise me deep down. If he were a normal human being that is.
How did your days go in the Vladimir prison?
Vitold Abankin: In prison we had our routine. After breakfast, silence: we read, studied languages and so on. Then a walk in the yard. And after that, a discussion of various issues. The radio receiver, which was always too loud, would be covered with a pea jacket. But when the latest news came on, we listened and then discussed it. Then lunch. And after lunch, silence again. If there was an urgent matter in the newspapers, then we would discuss it for a couple of minutes.
One day we sat in silence and suddenly heard snoring outside our door. Which meant that Obrubov had fallen asleep on his stool. Alexei Safronov ran up to the door and kicked it real hard. Tumbling noise and swearing followed from the outside. Obrubov fell off his stool and was cursing us. In the evening, after dinner, we would discuss what we had read in magazines and in the newspapers, would hold a debate, read poetry, and tell stories. This was our free time when we could be creative.
Tell us about one such creative evening.
Vitold Abankin: There we are, in the Vladimir Prison, with Bukovsky. And suddenly the radio begins to broadcast a poem by Robert Rozhdestvensky dedicated to Leonid Brezhnev. We were in shock! So we started to discuss this — how Rozhdestvensky could write such sycophantic drivel? Maybe they forced him, or maybe... And immediately a poem came to me: "For a slimy piece of goody, you sold your very soul and body. So take a sip of people's blood, wash down your creepy dirty stunt.” Bukovsky grimaced: "Yuck, such disgusting words. 'Slimy' — how disgusting. But how precise. I can’t believe what he’s fallen into.”
So I wrote a letter to the radio station to be passed on to Rozhdestvensky and included these verses of mine. I gave the letter to the duty guard the next morning. And a few days later I got 15 days in a punishment cell for violating the regime, i.e. talking to inmates in the neighboring cell through the toilet bowl. (Toilet bowls in Soviet prisons allowed sound to be carried to neighboring cells and could be used as communicating devices — AO). When already in my punishment cell, I asked the officer what exactly I was being punished for. “For your letter to Rozhdestvensky,” he whispered to me, looking over his shoulder.
One day I read an article in Pravda newspaper saying that American propaganda slanders Cuba and its leader Fyodor Castrato (as we called Fidel Castro). The article said that there were no Cuban troops in Angola and there cannot ever be, blah-blah-blah. So I kept this article. I knew this was one of Pravda’s lies. A month passes and I see another article published in Pravda. Which says that yes, indeed, Cuban troops are fighting in Angola, helping the Angolan people in their struggle for independence. And again, America is to blame for something.
So I cut out this article too and sent both clippings to the untruthful Pravda with one question — whose propaganda is lying? A week goes by. And then they give me 15 days in a punishment cell because my drinking cup remained on the table during the night. Everyone was in shock. This was something unheard of. Many inmates would leave their drinking cups on the table, but the administration chose to punish me, saying that I violated the regime. So I'm sitting in my punishment cell. The feeding flap opens, and the sadist Lt. Col. Ugodin, the deputy head of the prison regime, glances at me (he was the one who watched inmate Tikhonov being beaten to death by his cellmates) and says, "Well, how do you like your cell, Abankin? Do you have complaints or statements to make?" I asked him, "What exactly have you put me here for? This drinking cup nonsense if just a pretense.” — "Well, Abankin, you consider yourself smart, but don’t you understand that you now find yourself here because you have caught Pravda on a lie." He then smiled maliciously and left.
Vladimir Prison was one of the worst prisons in the USSR. What else do you recall about it?
Vitold Abankin: Walking yards in Vladimir are located on the roofs of prison buildings. And we, the inmates, were not seeing any greenery at all. No grass, no trees, no flowers for three years solid. Only the sky and the iron bars above our heads. And the figure of the guard against the sky. There were inmates who have spent 10, 15, or more years there. So one day somehow the wind brought a maple leaf to our yard. It was a miracle! We grabbed it, began examining it, pressed it to our lips, to our cheeks. We rejoiced like small children. We took it to our cell, and it was lying on our table. Then it dried up, but we didn’t throw it away. I fell asleep one night with these verses in my head:
Outside there is spring and freedom
And flowers, and you waiting for me.
And over here there are no seasons
Prison bars and walls is all I can see.
Mischievous wind while playing freely
Once brought us a maple leaf.
We marveled at God’s creation
And cursed the regime and its appointees.
Don’t be sad and forgive me my ways,
Soon I’ll be back in our native Rostov.
I’ll knock on your door while holding for you
A bouquet smelling of meadows and lawns.
This poem has now become one of my songs.
You are known not only as a poet, but also as a musician. You sing beautifully, and you used to have your own band in Rostov which made studio recordings and music videos. Is this talent innate or have you worked to develop voice?
Vitold Abankin: My father used to say that my mother sang well and played the piano and the guitar. At the age of 12 I felt an urge to sing. So I began to try to sing songs of Robertino Lorreti. It turned out great, and I sounded just like him. But I did not want to sing pioneer songs or songs of the Komsomol (Young Communists League — AO), so I hid my talent, refused to sing in public and had fail grades in singing at school. At home I would close all doors and windows and would just sing, sing, and sing. So my voice improved. Even my father did not know that I was singing. If I opened my mouth at school, they’d force me to sing communist drivel.
Here is a story from the Vladimir Prison. There was a guard there, a good-natured man. He would open all the feeding flaps during lunch time, and while food was being distributed, he would sit there, dozing off, by his nightstand. Food service inmates (who were called “cherpak”) would pass on notes (called “ksiva”) to the inmates, as well as various goodies sent from the outside (called “podogrev”), while the guard would sit there and snore.
So one day I stuck my head out through the feeding flap and sang loudly so that the entire floor could hear: “Zavyalkin! I will not hide — my love for cream is justified." Zavyalkin was the last name of the head of the prison, and he was a colonel. All the cells immediately fell silent. Vovka (Vladimir Bukovsky — AO) was completely stunned and said, “You have such a voice, why don’t you sing?” And I replied that in truth I had no voice and was simply goofing off.
Then rumors started to spread around prison that one of the inmates was an opera singer. Years later I sent my recordings to Vovka. He was in shock and said that I had ruined my talent. And I replied that it’s better to be completely numb than to sing communist gibberish.
Were there desperate people in the Vladimir Prison?
Vitold Abankin: One day we were walking down the prison corridor to be taken for a walk: Alexei Safronov, me, and Bukovsky. An old guard who had spent over 40 years working in prison was walking ahead of us. He was a good-natured, kindly old man. He used to call the inmates “boys". Bukovsky was walking to the right side, next to the wall where the cell doors were. And suddenly he slipped when passing by one of the cells. I grabbed him, otherwise he’d fall. We looked at the floor, and there was some kind of dark liquid by the cell door. The old man got frightened.
I asked him, "What is it?" In the morning we heard noise in the corridor, prisoners kicking the doors of their cells and banging on them with their food bowls. "Boys, let's go, let's go, we don’t want to be seen here."
So we climbed up the stairs and entered the exercise yard. I held back the door and again asked the old man what had happened. “There’s an inmate in that cell, he says that he’s innocent and needs to see the prosecutor. He writes complaints all the time. Who cares? Doesn’t he know that there are plenty of innocent people in this prison. The prosecutor doesn’t want to see him. So he cut open his stomach today and dumped his intestines down the feeding flap." We were in complete shock. We asked, "And what next?" “What do you think?” says the old man, “They fixed his guts, and now he is in the prison medical unit, moaning. The fool. You won’t get any justice here.”
From Vitold Abankin’s short autobiographical sketch Ears in an Envelope: Things camps and prisons have seen! They were described by Solzhenitsyn, Shalamov, Dyakov and many former political prisoners who went through each circle of hell of the Soviet penitentiary system. Eye-witnesses have told me about many blood-curdling cases of protests against the violence that takes place there.
Every day, at 6 a.m. the radio would be turned on and the guards would walk along the corridors and bang the feeding flaps with their keys, which meant everyone should rise. The prison would wake up, wash, attend to natural needs, and prepare for breakfast. And through the radio, the repulsive Soviet national anthem would be blasting out. The anthem was followed by a broadcast of an exercise routine, and then for the entire day the Soviet authorities would carry on praising themselves and cursing the capitalists.
Both criminals and political prisoners were long sick of this babble. We protested against the fact that it was impossible to turn off the radio in any given cell. There was only one switch, and the entire prison had to listen to the broadcasts.
The criminals would break the speakers, rip the metal grills from the niches above the doors where the speakers were located, and would plug the niches with jackets to drown out the sound. Of course, they always got punished for this: they’d be put in punishment cells, deprived of the opportunity to buy food in the prison shop, and disallowed correspondence for a month. But prisoners did not relent and did not want to listen to the Soviet radio for 16 hours a day. Not all prisoners, of course, but most.
We, political prisoners, would write complaints and even go on one-day hunger strikes in protest against the brainwashing that was being forced upon us. But everything was in vain, and we, following the example of the criminals, began to plug the radio niche with with our pea jackets. No, we listened to the radio — at least some programs, and the latest news. But often the radio interfered with our studies of foreign languages, with our reading, with writing complaints and protest statements, and with our discussions of current affairs. In general, having to listen to the radio — with volume turned up high — for 16 hours a day was a nightmare.
And then one day on a morning round, when the duty officer and his guards took over the shift from the previous shift, the inmates in one of the cells — who were persistent offenders (called “polosatye”) — handed a thick envelope to the duty officer, made from one of those paper bags the prison shop uses for wrapping cheap candy. The envelope was covered in brown spots. And addressed to Brezhnev.
Only later one of the guards, looking over his shoulder and whispering, told us what was inside that envelope: Human ears that have been cut off! They were sent to the Secretary-General of the Communist Party by one of the “polosatye” inmates. The enclosed letter said the following: “Here, you lowlife scum, have my ears. I’m tired of listening to your communist vomit on the radio — day in, day out. Give my ears to one of your lackeys, and let him listen to you with his four ears. “
The warden also added with a grin that when the duty officer opened the envelope, he got ill.
The entire prison was in a state of shock. The abnormal, sadistic measures of re-education also gave rise to inhuman, cruel forms of protest. Prisoners would swallow spoons, nails, barbed wire, would nail their genitals to bunks, hang themselves, cut their veins, suture their mouths, rip open their bellies and pour their intestines out into the corridor through the feeding flap, demanding to see the prosecutor. But hardly anyone paid attention to this. The convicts were beaten in retaliation, had their sentences extended, would get killed, and thrown into sweatbox cells. (A sweatbox cell, called “press-hata” are cells where convicts are being beaten and often killed by fellow inmates on prison authorities’ orders —AO).
Remembering the prison, places of detention, I can’t say for sure who was more criminal: prisoners or those who guarded and re-educated them.
How can a person reach such a threshold of desperation?
Vitold Abankin: Don’t be too scared, those were “polosatye”. And they are stone-cold inside. After all, they have spent 15-20 years in prison, or sometimes even longer than that. With their entire lives spent behind bars, they have a distorted consciousness. Life — if you can call dozens of years in prison “life” — didn’t mean much to them, so they abused their bodies to spite their jailers and the Soviet regime.
Does prison make sense at all? Does it carry any educational purpose? After all, there are lawyers and philosophers who believe that prison cannot impart anything on a person except for harm.
Vitold Abankin: There are several types of people. Some may commit a crime (often out of stupidity) and it is enough to arrest this kind of person, put him in a cell, and then you can release him. All his life he will remember the cell and the miracle of being set free. And he will never break the law.
Another type of person will have his spirit broken while in prison and will turn into an animal. A third type of person will lay low, and will pretend to have finished with crime, but after getting released he will simply be more cunning. Yet another type of person will get used to prison and to captivity. Most people are able to adapt to anything.
Once I’ve spent three months in a solitary cell in Vladimir. Those were the best months of my life.
Vitold Abankin: Are you shocked? No one bothers you, you get to think over many things, your memory starts working very well, you get your creativity running. I wrote. They took away everything. And then the KGB officer came from Moscow. “A 12-year term is not enough for you, Abankin? Well, we are generous people — when inmates ask us for something, we give."
In the first part of my interview to you, I described how my fellow inmate Tikhonov was murdered in prison. I told the KGB man that I was prepared to stay in prison for yet another 15 years, but only if he found at least one tiny lie in my notes. “And so,” I said, “go ahead, extend my sentence. But first buy wheat from the USA, otherwise they will impose an embargo on your because of me, and the starving people will eat you.” At the time there was a scandal in the news around this wheat issue — American trade unions were refusing to load Soviet vessels. I have managed to pass information to the outside about this visit by the KGB and about their threats, and Andrei Dmitrievich Sakharov took some steps. I have not seen this KGB man anymore.
There is a movie called The Chess Gambit. It’s about an intellectual who got captured by the Germans, and they didn’t know how to break him. And one Gestapo man said that he should not be given anything to read. And this man started to lose his awareness, but... one day managed to steal a chess teaching manual from a German. So he learned all the moves and then beat a world champion.
Criminals have it easier in prison: they have their fights, their drugs, their moonshine, their schemes on how to detect a snitch… Their lives are easier. In prison they plan new crimes, keep in touch with the outside, recruit cops and so on. But it’s hard to be a thinking man in prison. So when I found myself alone, I made my best intellectual effort — something that is not attainable when you’re a free man at home.
In the solitary cell I would do my physical exercises in the morning, eat, and then I would write, think, and have no distractions. They would offer to take me for a walk, but I would not go. My cell was clean — floors wiped, my window open, the air — fresh. I would write, write, write. Then lunch. Then again I would write and think. Then dinner. And again I would write and think. No one was distracting me. At home or in a labor camp such things are impossible.
The idea of prison can be intimidating to most people, especially in countries like the USSR or Russia. I once visited a prison in Germany. I asked, and they took me to a functioning prison. I was shocked. Inmates are being baby-sat there. An inmate realizes what his country needs him. Inmates are sitting in their cells, and their doors are open. There are classes where they can be taught anything, if they want. And they do learn — after all, once they get released, they’d have to support themselves.
On each floor there is a female psychologist, because a man, especially a criminal, finds it easier to open up to a woman. Once a prisoner gets released, he is being supported by social services for two years, which helps him re-adapt to society. And social services have no right to disclose that this man is a former prisoner. If you have no violations, they let go home for the weekend. And the food they get is exceptional! Cells have TV sets and normal bedding. So in essence it’s not a cell but a room. Windows have no bars. There are no watchtowers, no barbed wire.
When I returned from Germany, I relayed all of this to the Central Office of the Federal Penitentiary Service (GUFSIN). And wrote recommendations for them. But... we live in Russia, and the German way is not the Russian way. In Germany the recidivism rate is 1.5% and in Russia it’s 70%. So here is your answer. A German might threaten you with a knife when taking your wallet, and that’s it. But a Russian will take your wallet and then stab you. What for? Because of the bitterness and anger of everyone at everyone.
Mind you, people are angry not at the authorities that make their lives miserable, but at each other, as if those around them are to blame for their wretched lives. I talk about it in my book Horrid Stories. There you can read how I told Boris Yeltsin about what was going on in the camps. Then improvements began shortly after that. I proposed my plan to him and it worked. I told a group of prisoners later, when I became a member of the Public Council at our regional GUFSIN to thank Yeltsin for that.
In Germany you not only listened to what the Germans told you, but also told them about your life and your experiences.
From an article about Vitold Abankin in a German newspaper:
“Fight for your civil rights and don't do anything stupid that can cost you dearly.” This is Vitold Abankin's message to young people. Abankin says that faith in God and hope that good will prevail over evil have given him strength to survive his time in prison. And somehow, as absurd as it sounds, detention also had its good side. He got to know many good people, famous artists, poets, some of whom have spent almost their entire lives in prisons and labor camps. Abankin visits prisons and camps today, and works on poetry publications. He recently founded a band called "Article 58" in his home town of Rostov-on-Don.”
Are you staying in touch with the Germans?
Vitold Abankin: I have received a letter from my translator Natasha in Germany. She writes that they are planning to hold a presentation of my military identity card at the museum and asked if that card was with me during my escape attempt and when I managed to get it back. I replied that if you are military, you always have your ID card in your pocket. It’s like your passport. They gave it back to me upon my release, and later I gave it to the museum.
What, in your opinion, is the main difference in the authorities' approach of the prison system in Russia and in the West?
Vitold Abankin: In Europe and in America prisoners are treated in accordance with the teaching of Christ. Turn the other cheek. That is, if a person has committed a crime, the state will not create terrible conditions for him, as it was in the GULAG, but offer him humane conditions. Violence and cruelty intimidate and break people and turn people into animals, and a person who is treated that way will hate the state and will bite its hand at any moment. This is the reason why the Soviets surrendered to the Germans by the thousands.
Violence and cruelty negate human conscience, and a person begins to respond with the same kind of violence. In my book Horrid Stories I talk about this. When a KGB man came from Moscow to see me in prison in order to intimidate me and try to scare me with a new prison term, I told him how on December 10, 1974 (the Human Rights Day), prison guards killed an inmate. He was being taken to see a doctor and was walking along the prison corridor when he saw the prison nurse walking towards him — the wife of some sort of warden... And this inmate grabbed her by her soft spot.
The cops led him into an empty cell and began to beat him with wooden hammers which had long handles. With these hammers — when convicts are taken out for a walk — they knock on bars and walls. If a grill rattles, then this means that it is filed. And if a wall has a hole in it which is papered over with a piece paper and painted to match the color of the wall, then this hammer will break through the hole. To make a long story short, they have beaten this inmate to death. But while he was still alive and lay there dying, the nurse entered the cell. She stood above him so that his body was between her legs. She lifted up her skirt and said, gloating, “Is this what you wanted? You can have it now!" The cops are sadists, they are animals. But what kind of creature was that nurse?
So this KGB man immediately petered out and began to pry whether I knew the name of the nurse and the guards. I told him I didn’t, but was bound to receive this information sooner or later. Yes, that inmate was a fool. Criminals are generally uninhibited, shall we say. But to kill for this sort of thing! I would give him a kick, that’s all.
A guard told a story once how the inmates in the labor camp for criminals kept syringes wrapped in dirty rags somewhere under a stone. They would catch a cat, take blood from it with a rusty needle and then inject themselves. The rejection reaction would then begin. The inmate would fall to the ground and writhe, convulsing, foam coming out of his mouth. Then he would get quiet and lie there, as if dead. But then he would get up. Stagger about and say, "Wow, I got such a kick out of it!" And carry on as usual. I wish I could ask some scientist a question: Where does this sort of behavior come from?
Inhumane conditions in labor camps give rise to the same kind of inhumane ways of resisting them. Which means that convicts use evil to fight evil. And there will never be an end to this. This is the reason why Christ said what he said about turning the other cheek. I don’t know who would raise his hand to strike again if a person turns the other cheek. And everyone has a conscience. I may be dull, or crushed by cruelty and injustice, but it is there. And only kindness can awaken it. In tsarist Russia murderers were pitied and prayed for. It was believed that they were destined to go to eternal hell, that they were on Satan’s side, and therefore would not be granted Resurrection. I write about all of this in my book.
How do you think Bukovsky had managed to get along with the criminals during his first term?
Vitold Abankin: Yes, he was in the labor camp for criminals having been sentenced under article 190 of the Criminal Code (“active participation in group activity disrupting the public order” —AO). And there he taught criminals how to play preferance, a card game where you have to count. I haven’t held cards in my hands in my entire life and I don’t understand anything about them, and thank God. So they adored him for that. He won the game, and they got rather displeased. Winning in a card game when playing with criminals is not easy. Criminals are obsessed with cards. But he taught them how to play this game.
There was an attempt on his life in the camp, as he told me. A man attacked him with a stool. Vovka dodged the stool, but didn’t escape the blow entirely. Then code-bound criminals ran in, broke the bones of that guy, and assigned one person to guard Vovka. Then it turned out that earlier a KGB man had visited the camp and spoke for a long time with the field officers. When the main crime lord of the camp was being transferred to another camp, just before being taken away, he told everyone regarding Bukovsky: "Take care of him. We are each doing time for our own stuff, but he is doing time for the sake of us all." And Vovka served his term OK.
You also tried to take care of him in the Vladimir Prison, didn’t you? For example, the way you tried to make sure that he didn’t smoke that much.
Vitold Abankin: Vovka called me a sadist when I would dump his strong tobacco down the toilet. I would dump it in the toilet, and he would get angry. I used to tell him, "Vova, the KGB wants to see you dead, the quicker, the better. But you won’t receive poison from me." Vovka was a terribly heavy smoker, and the other three of us in the cell were non-smokers. I told him, "Vova, you are a democrat, and so are we. Can you stick your little ciggies in your ears or up your nose, but make it so that we don’t have to breathe in your smoke? There’s a window, smoke there." And he would hang by the window bars all the time and smoke. One day a guard opened the feeding flap and asked what he was doing there. I replied that he is trying to burn through the iron bars with his cigarette. The cop laughed until he nearly dropped to the floor.
In the first part of this interview you told a story of how you have made a birthday cake for Bukovsky in 1975 out of improvised ingredients. What other gifts would prisoners give each other?
Vitold Abankin: We had a fellow inmate in Vladimir by the name of Gunnar Rode, a Latvian. He hated communists with a passion. And then his birthday came. We all had presents for him. One guy gave him a pen, another guy gave him a notebook, the third guy gave him a book. And I have made a hand grenade out of bread clay and painted it — when it got dry — with black ink from a ballpoint pen. Then I attached an imitation lug to it which I have made out of a plastic pen and a lever made out of a bent spoon. When it sat on our table it looked exactly like a real grenade. I didn’t go for walks for two days while I was making it. So I put it in an envelope and handed it to Gunnar. What followed was pure joy! He was almost kissing it. He was jumping around the cell holding it and even slept with it.
Then I told him that we needed to get rid of the grenade. There would be a search, they would find it, and we would end up in a punishment cell. He agreed, with regret. So I threw the grenade out of the feeding flap when a guard was opening it. The grenade rolled across the floor, making a tumbling sound. It was that solid. Food service inmates scattered in fear, and all neighboring cells got a fright. Then the KGB man Obrubov and the field officers started running around the cells trying to find out whose grenade it was. And Vovka said, when I handed it to Gunnar, “This is quite something! How did the Bolsheviks allow such criminal talent slip through their fingers?”
Prisoners are known for their various handicraft skills.
Vitold Abankin: We constantly wrote complaints about what was happening in our prison, as there were a lot of violations there. Information was being given to us by the inmates who were serving time for criminal offenses. Even the guards would ask us for help when suddenly faced with injustices on the outside. And we would write complaints for them too. But the field officers and the KGB men were fed up with this and once we were told — when we ordered paper and envelopes — that none of this was in stock in the prison shop.
So I suggested we make our own envelopes and use wheat paste as a glue, and use white paper strips torn from the margins to write the addresses and to write the complaints. An inmate whose last name was Vudka had over one thousand stamps. Vovka (Vladimir Bukovsky — AO) thought my idea was great and told me I had an inventive mind.
We got down to business. Glued envelopes, cut out white paper stripes with a sharpened spoon, inscribed addresses, and wrote complaints. And in the morning our cell — there were four people in it — handed 50 envelopes to the duty officer. The officer and the cops had their eyes out on stalks. And in an hour we were given proper envelopes, paper, and our complaints were brought back to us too. They were asking us not to send them. We refused.
Many cops used to say, “These are the people who could not be broken in the camps, so they brought them here. And what are we going to do with them? Our wives and daughters are forced to write accompanying notes to their complaints, and there are so many of them that their hands are numb from constantly holding the pens. If we could have it our way, we’d send all these guys abroad.”
How severe were the customs in labor camps for criminal offenders?
Vitold Abankin: In camps for criminals, convicts punished fellow inmates very severely for transgressions. In a neighboring camp, a cook managed to gamble away the meat he was supposed to feed the convicts with. At that time, according to the rules, a convict was supposed to receive 15 grams of meat per day, and it was meat of “the tenth grade,” that is, skin, tails, guts... So the convicts come for lunch, and the cook greets them with an apology, saying that he had gambled away the meat in a game of cards. They pushed him into a cauldron which was full of water, closed the lid, and turned on the gas. The kitchen door was backed with a bench. The guards found out, knocked out the frame, flew into the kitchen and freed the cook. Since then, he was afraid to hold cards in his hands.
One day a criminal convict appeared in our labor camp. He had done something wrong in his camp for criminals, and in order to save his skin, he wrote a couple of political leaflets and glued them to the door of the camp’s head office. He was then convicted under article 70 of the Penal Code (“anti-soviet agitation and propaganda” — AO) and transferred to our camp. He could not understand where he was at first. There were no knives, no fights, no one used obscenities, and everyone was discussing matters he could not grasp. The convicts walked around with books, many spoke English. No one threatened him. For about a month he would walk around and marvel at things.
And then one day an inspection arrived from the Directorate. The visiting group included the camp governor Major Kotov, deputy head of the regime, field officers, and inspectors. And it so happened that exactly at that time this felon was scurrying along a footpath with his sooty mug in which he’d brewed some chifir (very strong tea — AO). Kotov, to show his authority, says to him, "Convict, why aren’t you saying hello?" And this prisoner throws his mug on the ground, the tea spills, falls to his knees, crawls to Kotov, wraps his arms around his boots and cries, “Forgive me, nobleman! Do forgive this lackey of yours! This won’t happen again!” Kotov’s shock, the inspectors are turning around and running out of the camp. We were all stunned too. Wow! We gathered some tea and gave it to this man.
This is a fine example of deliberate escalation of a confrontation to the level of the absurd. I like the way this prisoner demonstrated the gap between the ideals which were being officially declared in the USSR and their exact opposite, which reigned everywhere in the country. Many prisoners, it seems to me, can put anyone in place, even the most sophisticated polemicist, not just a prison guard. And, of course, it’s hard to forget how an investigator in the KGB prison in Potsdam threatened you with capital punishment and asked, “Do you wish to stay alive?” And you answered, "It depends on what you call life.”
Vitold Abankin: I was once sitting on the floor in a punishment cell, as the bunks aren’t available there during the day. Kotov enters and says, “Why aren’t you saying hello, Abankin?” I replied that, according to social norms, the person who enters a room is supposed to greet those who are already there. He said, “I am entering a room which belongs to me. This is my camp and my punishment cell. And there is such thing as law. So social norms do not apply here”. “Since social norms do not apply, — I said, — I will be frank with you. You are a cop, and I'm a prisoner. Can a prisoner who is in his right mind wish a cop to be in good health? This is unnatural. From now on I will be greeting you with the words ‘Drop dead.’ ” (In the Russian language the word “Hello” (“Zdravstvuite”) literally means “Be well” —AO). He added another 15 days to my time in the punishment cell.
Vitold Andreyevich, Is there a funny episode from camp life you’d perhaps like to share?
Vitold Abankin: Here are a couple of gags. One political prisoner had the following written in his trial verdict: “During the trial he maliciously kept silent and smiled in an anti-Soviet way.”
Captain Zhuravkov wrote a report on my fellow inmate Alexei Safronov, which, among other things, said, "... inmate Safronov kept looking at me for a long time and viciously so." The KGB laughed at this when they read it out to Alexei.
Major Fedorov, the moron of labor camp no. 36, once uttered during an argument with a convict: "Why are you shouting at me in a historical (sic) voice? Who am I to you?!”
The cops always wanted to break the political prisoners in any way they could. So they came up with an idea of a so-called Council of Internal Order, which meant that prisoners were supposed to walk around the camp wearing red bandages with this inscription, like militia, and monitor things, making sure everything was in order. We weren’t criminals, we had no fights, no scandals or anything like that. But this was designed to break all convicts. Also, prisoners were supposed to participate in public life, that is, to issue a newspaper, to grass on each other, to participate in amateur performances.
In 1967, on November 7 (the anniversary of the revolution — AO) cops, together with former policemen who were called fascists during the war for serving the Germans, put up a concert. Long benches were put on stage. In the third row there stood those who were tall, in the second row those who were slightly shorter, and in the first row the prisoners stood on the floor, forming an amphitheater of sorts. In the audience there were prison guards with their wives, KGB men, civilian employees, and political prisoners who sat at the very back. Andrei Sinyavsky did not come to this show.
And so imagine, here they are — former Polizei men who have now “embarked on the path of correction” and who used to always tell us, younger prisoners, to follow their example, standing there singing the song titled Lenin Lives On. We were in shock. And then one former Polizei man, who stood in the third row, at the far end of the high bench, suddenly dropped his denture out of his mouth, which fell to the floor. He jumps off the bench, picks up his denture, puts it back in his mouth, jumps back onto the bench and continues to sing. The convicts in the audience laughed so hard they were practically crawling on the floor. The cops laughed too, and so did the KGB men. And the wives were crying with laughter. But the most important thing was not the dropped denture, but the kind of people who were singing this song about Lenin. Sinyavsky regretted not seeing this concert. This was something one can’t ever see anywhere else in the world — a choir of fascists singing about Lenin.
It is amazing that in confinement you crossed paths with entire layers of Russian history, living participants of key historical events.
Vitold Abankin: According to the verdict of the court, all the defendants in the court case of Minister Abakumov were to be shot. (Viktor Abakumov was a high-level Soviet security official who was tried for fabricating a series of criminal cases in the late 1940s–early 1950s in order to accuse a number of prominent politicians of treason — AO). But this was how the newspapers reported it. In actuality Chernov became a convict in the camp for political prisoners no. 11 where he served as a head of the warehouse which stored prisoner’s belongings. Broverman served as the head of the finished goods warehouse. Libenson worked as an accountant. They have all received 25-year sentences.
Sometimes officials dressed in civilian clothes would come from Moscow to see Broverman, and he would sit with them in the main office of the labor camp until two or three in the morning. The office would get surrounded by cops so that no one would be able to overhear the conversation. Broverman would then come out slightly tipsy and bring with him a bag of sausage, chocolate, butter, and sweets. He probably shared some of his know-how with those security officers from Moscow. Or maybe he shared compromising materials on some of the senior officials.
Broverman was the head of the NKVD (secret police, predecessor of KGB — AO) investigation department in Leningrad, where people were being tortured and killed. In 1967, on the 50th anniversary of the revolution, Broverman told all of us young people that if we behaved well, we’d be released. He suggested "helping" the administration, which meant grassing.
In criminal camps, information was also disseminated about an upcoming large-scale amnesty. Prisoners began to work harder and did not violate the discipline. And then comes November the 7th. No one got pardoned or released. To tell the truth, we did not believe those promises. But the criminals did. In one women’s labor camp out of more than a thousand convicts, only 14 people got released, so the female convicts started rioting and refused to go to work... It took a week to settle this matter. And it was like that across all labor camps. Prisoners quit working because they had been so brazenly deceived.
In the camps you probably got acquainted also with those who fought alongside Bandera? (Stepan Bandera was an ideologue of the Ukrainian nationalist movement who led Ukrainian resistance both against the communists and the nazis. — AO).
Vitold Abankin: In camp no. 11, I became rather well-known on my very first day there. The former Bandera fighters invited me over, and brewed tea in a black, sooty mug, covered with a burnt work glove. There were sandwiches with lard and cheap candy. They asked me questions, passed around this mug in a circle. I tried that strong tea of theirs and it tasted terribly bitter. It wouldn’t go down my throat. They laughed, diluted the tea for me in a separate half-liter glass jar, and then I could drink it. They began to recall various stories from their camp life, and their attention to me gradually waned. I took the mug and left. Behind the barracks I rubbed it to a shine with some sand, washed it, and returned it to the guys.
You should have seen their faces. They were stunned when I put the shining mug back on their table. They were speechless. “What have you done? Why did you clean the mug?!” cried one of them. “We’ve been brewing tea in this mug for 15 years, and you... Now the tea will taste like aluminum. What have you done? You're worse than the KGB.” And everyone began to laugh. And when they calmed down, one of them said that now they would have to start borrowing a brewing mug either from the religious convicts or from “the forest brothers” (Baltic guerrilla fighters who waged a warfare against the Soviet invasion and occupation of the three Baltic States and during the WWII — AO).
And since people would point their fingers at me in the camp and say, "This is that newbie, Abankin, who wrong-footed the Bandera men, who cleaned their mug." Even the guards laughed and teased me. I grew up with a sailor father in perfect cleanliness, which he taught me. Every day I cleaned the floors, everything shone and sparkled in our house, like in a submarine or on a ship. And when I saw that terrible black mug, my reflex got triggered. Later I realized that those convicts were right. Aluminum gives off its faint smell to tea, coffee, water, and spoils the taste. I even read about it on several occasions. So that's how I became famous right away.
From Vitold Abankin’s short story Let Me Tell You About...:
Let me tell you about Petro Grigoryevich Opanasenko. I met him in the winter of 1967 at labor camp number 11 in Mordovia, in the village of Yavass. At the time he was already considered a veteran camp convict and was an elderly man. Under the window of his barrack, a flower patch was blooming, and between the flowers there grew parsley, dill, and salad.
No, the flowers weren’t there to serve as a disguise for anything. He loved them with all his heart, looked after them, would sit and admire them, and his face would soften, his eyes, already warm, would shine with childish joy. From parsley, dill and salad, he would make a paste-like substance and hand it out to convicts in the camp canteen as seasoning for cabbage soup. And immediately the camp soup would turn into something tasty. When a convict had his birthday — whether he was a criminal or a political convict — Petro Grigoryevich would discreetly put several flowers near the birthday boy.
But a convict in a labor camp is meant to toil and suffer. A prisoner shouldn’t smile, shouldn’t sing songs, but should moan and weep. Such is the essence of the Soviet correctional labor system, which cannot be called anything else but inhumane.
One morning, we saw Petro Grigorievich’s flowers lying around, crushed by cops’ boots. Flowers, as well as dill, parsley and lettuce, lay there broken, crumpled and dirty, in their destroyed beds. I did not see his tears, but his eyes went out, darkened, and there was no more light or warmth to them. A fire of hatred and revenge blazed through my chest. I took things close to heart, and reacted to all injustice emotionally, no matter who had been wronged, and was now ready to retaliate.
Next to the work area there were greenhouses surrounded by a fence, and this is where convicts who cooperated with the administration — mostly those who served as nazi policemen during the occupation — were growing vegetables for the bosses. Seizing the moment when no one saw me, I went behind the canteen building. Big, heavy rail nuts lay in my pockets. I don’t know how many greenhouse glass panes I broke, but there was a lot of noise and talk about it afterwards. Vegetables and flowers were all destroyed.
“That’s it, Petro Grigorievich, I got back at them for your flowers.”
“You are so hot-headed. Do you think this was the right thing to do?! Plants are not to blame. And the guards — they are fools, and the problem is not them.”
“But we must punish them!” I fumed, still feeling somewhere deep down that I wasn’t completely right in what I’ve done.
“Well, they’ve already punished themselves. Trampling on flowers is not a thing that one can simply do and forget about it. And as for you, do not be so bitter, otherwise the bitterness will burn you from the inside.”
At the time I got a little offended by this, and only later, after years have passed, did I understand how right the old prisoner was. Even now, conscience torments me when I think of those greenhouses. Petro Grigorievich taught me a good lesson.
Again he took up his flowers. I helped him, and other prisoners carried water and pulled out the weeds. The gaze of the old Ukrainian got warm again. As for the guards, they would walk quickly by and squint at his plants maliciously, but did not touch the flower beds anymore.
Petro Grigorievich was doing time for defending the freedom of his people. He was seized in town while on a mission. They tortured, beat, and abused him, demanded that he betray his fellow fighters, but he wasn’t of that kind — he told them nothing.
Instead he took the KGB to a hiding place, which had not been in use for a long time, but did not say that the hiding place had a secret exit. He lifted the lid of a disguised hatch, started crawling in, and the KGB men followed. Then Petro Grigoryevich squirreled through the secret exit hole and was gone. The KGB men got so angry, they started screaming and firing their guns across the forest, but finally had to leave, empty-handed.
For a long time this brave Ukrainian would be giving them the go-around. But then he got arrested again. He and his friend. Again — torture and beatings. In Stalin’s camps they would try to break Ukrainians morally and physically. The friend of Petro Grigoryevich could not stand the abuse and hanged himself. Opanasenko was now alone.
Labor camp no. 11 underwent restructuring, and several smaller camps were created instead. Petro Grigorievich and I went out separate ways. But we met again in camp no. 36, in the Perm region, in the village of Chusovoy. Almost four years have passed. The old Ukrainian turned gray, his back was now hunched, and one could tell he was getting on. But he remained a gentle and kind person. And again he planted flowers in the camp, and among them — dill, parsley, salad. And what is more, Opanasenko now took up medical activities — he now planted medicinal herbs. Where he got the seeds, only God knows.
“I, Abankin, am a KGB man first, and a doctor second. And I do indeed care who I render my medical services to. Take you, for example. You are against the Soviet government, yet you have come to me,” the head of our medical unit at camp number 36, Doctor Petrov, would say. So Petro Opanasenko began to treat his fellow prisoners. At the time, as I remember, many suffered from fungus. He burned some birch logs to make tar and made an ointment out of it, following his own recipe. He would distribute it to people explaining how to use it. It helped everyone.
Sitting next to him, listening to his voice, to his Ukrainian words, I felt at home, and also something native to me and dear emanating from him. I would suddenly recall how I used to visit farms in my early childhood near Likha in the Rostov Region, which in the spring time drowned in the gentle haze of blossoming apple trees, while I was listening to the soft accent of Petro Grigoryevich, identical to the one that people had there.
In camp number 36 a strike broke out. An officer had hit a Ukrainian convict, and we demanded that he be tried in a court of law. Forty-five people were sent to the Vladimir Prison for this, for three years each. Again mine and Opanasenko’s paths diverged.
Three years have passed in prison amidst hunger strikes, protests, complaints, statements, and time in punishment cells. We used all the energy we had to fight for human rights and against the arbitrariness of the administration. And then I found myself in camp number 36 again. I had ten months left until the end of my 12-year term. They brought us to the camp, searched us, and let us in. Friends met me with a blunt piece of news: "Petro Opanasenko has died, hanged himself, could not stand the confinement any longer, he was old, he was sick ..." The news hit me like a heavy blow across the head. I have seen so many prisoners die in my lifetime, but this death, like the death of Yuri Galanskov, pierced my heart with pain. Everything that I’ve known about Petro Grigoryevich suddenly flashed across my mind, and let me tell you, I’ve never known another man like him.
Have you ever met any political prisoners from Central Asia?
Vitold Abankin: I have met several Uzbek resistance fighters. Those were fine fellas! The communists came to their village peacefully initially, with a red flag. And started promising the people mountains of gold, and asked them if they wanted to join the collective farm. But these people already had their sheep and their land, no one suffered from poverty, they lived well, the way they had lived for centuries. So they refused. And early in the morning the reds attacked them, began to set houses on fire, to chop, to shoot. This is how the bloody communist regime was being established. Immediately everyone became destitute. "Well, how do you feel about joining the collective farm now?" they asked them with an evil grin. And these guys fled, then met the same guys as them, and started killing the reds. Was it their fault? Their relatives have been murdered, their livelihood has been ruined. People who have done this to them were fascists!
So, one day I’m sitting in a punishment cell, and the guard is a young Uzbek. After he got discharged from his compulsory two years in the army, he was called up to the draft board again and offered secret type of work. They promised to give him his own apartment and a good salary. And hinted that he would be working at a place where rare few get an opportunity to work, and that he’d be proud of his job. The guy thought they meant a space launch facility. So they brought him to the labor camp and put him up on a watchtower. He began to protest, but he’d already signed the papers. Then they made him a warden. This guy was into athletics and knew that I was into weightlifting. This was in labor camp no. 36. So I would tell him about the Uzbeks I’d met while in confinement and how the communist gangs used to install Soviet power in Uzbekistan.
I wanted him to start helping us, to start forwarding information to the outside. I told him that when he gets back home, he’d be forced to keep his labor camp past a secret. So I would sit there alone in my punishment cell, and he would be there alone too. I would spend hours chatting to him. I’d tell him about Novocherkassk, about Sakharov, about Solzhenitsyn, about what the Soviets did in Hungary, in Czechoslovakia, in East Germany...
And then this guy disappeared. Later the guards told me that he went to his commander, ripped off his shoulder straps and said that he was not going to continue to serve, and that honest people were doing time in this camp who were put there for telling the truth. He was sent to the court of honor, and he said such things there that he was immediately taken to Uzbekistan. It’s a pity that I don't remember his last name, but he was the only Uzbek there.
Bukovsky wrote in one of his books that the most stubborn convicts from all over the country were gathered in Vladimir Prison. It is clear that none of these people were ordinary, but were there any very unusual prisoners?
Vitold Abankin: The old wardens once told us that there was an old man in the Vladimir Prison whose identification was a number, not a name. It was forbidden to talk to him, and he was in solitary. Then he was taken away. But still the guards managed to learn something about him. He was a wood ranger in the Katyn Forest. And he saw who shot the Polish officers. He understood that he was a witness, and therefore fled to Yugoslavia. But in the USSR he had a daughter. After the war he wrote her a letter. That's how he ended up in the Vladimir Prison. When the topic of the execution of the Polish officers was finally publicly raised, I wrote a letter to the prosecutor's office in Moscow. I was then summoned to the military prosecutor's office in Rostov, and I told what I knew to the investigators. I have also recently written to the Polish Embassy, but received no reply.
Vitold Andreyevich, how did everything go for you after your release? How were you adapting to the outside world after twelve years in prison?
Vitold Abankin: I was released on August 4, 1978, and on the 5th I took a train to travel to Moscow, to see Andrei Dmitrievich Sakharov. I described this in the first part of this interview. When they forcibly returned me to Rostov, after a couple of days my feet began to swell up and redden. They turned crimson, and that color went right up to my knees. My ankles were swollen, so that I couldn’t wear socks or shoes. This amazed me. I felt no pain, but I couldn’t go anywhere.
At the time I lived with my half-sister, who had already signed a cooperation agreement with the KGB. They frightened her, saying that they would make her son’s life difficult, since he was the nephew of the enemy of the people. And my foolish half-sister said nothing to me about this. While actually I could have guessed it all myself, if I weren’t such a donkey. I knew some “clean” addresses and phone numbers in Moscow, where I would send letters and occasionally call. I kept them hidden in different places across the house. Some she found, or maybe they were discovered during secret searches while none of us were at home. But searches took place in Moscow and there were complaints against me. I explained myself and shared how things were with my sister. I had an argument with her, moved out, and began to rent my own apartment. Later I wanted to record her confessions on camera, but she was already dead.
So, with these strange legs of mine I took a taxi to hospital no. 7, barefoot. There, doctors couldn’t figure out what was wrong with me. They asked me where I worked, and I told them that I had just been released and so on. And one doctor, an older man, said that what happened was a sudden switch to a normal diet which now included an abundance of fruit, and that this was the reaction of my body to vitamins. The thing was that I’ve not eaten any apples, or strawberries, or raspberries, or pears, or grapes, or eggs, or fresh vegetables and so forth for 12 years.
So I was admitted to this hospital and stayed there for a month. This doctor told me to eat hospital food only. This kind of food is worse than what people eat at home, but is better than prison food. And this was supposed to ease the transition. It was my own fault — after getting released I began to gorge on grapes, apricots and so on. To cut a long story short, after a week the swelling subsided and redness disappeared. My body began to get back to normal.
A sporty-looking guy appeared one day in our ward. He wasn’t being given any tests, the doctors weren’t paying any attention to him, and he would follow me around trying to become friends with me. And I had bought a good radio receiver known as “Okean” and would listen to the Voice of America. I would also exercise in the park, walk on my arms, and do push-ups. He was always with me. I immediately realized that this was a KGB man. But I didn’t let it show. He cursed the Soviet regime, talked about the camps, and described who served time for what.
Then I got discharged from hospital, and our local policeman came to my house and told me to get a job. So I went to the electric goods manufacturing facility called “Electric Instruments” which was located near where I lived. And people in the personnel department began asking me about my work history and why haven’t I been working anywhere for so many years. Well, I began to tell them how I got my prison term, who were my fellow inmates, about the inmates who still remain in prisons and camps, and about the Novocherkassk massacre. A dozen or so people came up to me to hear my stories. They were listening, horrified. Then they told me to come back the next day to complete the hiring process.
And in the morning, Lieutenant Colonel K. N. Khokhulnikov came to my house and said that if I continued to answer job interview questions in this manner, I’d be returned to the labor camp. To which I replied that I had never signed any non-disclosure agreements. And what was I supposed to be saying to people at personnel departments? That I have spent all those years on the Moon? Or was in a coma?
So, long story short, the KGB man promised to get me a job. And he arranged for Auntie Olga to hire me as a loader at the furniture factory warehouse. And I grew up with her son and often ate at their house. Victor Bykodorov's father was a fisherman and specialized in carp and catfish. They had fish every day. Auntie Olga took care of me as if I were a street child, always gave me a better piece than to her son Vit'ka. She used to say that a life without a mother was not proper life. She was a compassionate woman.
As soon as I started working for her, a guy one day comes in, wearing a denim suit. At the time denim suits were very rare and very expensive. I was seeing him for the first time in my life, and he immediately suggested he and I flee the country. He said he was paying a pilot three thousand rubles for teaching him how to fly airplanes, and that his plan was for him and I to highjack an empty plane and fly it to Turkey. He boasted that he had 12 thousand rubles and that money was not a problem. I replied that I was waiting for a letter of invitation from abroad to be able to leave the country legally. That an empty plane would be shot down and no one would care. That I had a proper exit route, a proper door open for me and was not planning to climb through the window. He confidently answered that the authorities would never let me out of the country.
And then he began telling me things that made my jaw drop. Things that included the story about the tunnel I was digging in the labor camp trying to escape, and about the flyers I was distributing, and about the UN flag, and my weightlifting. I demanded to know how he knew such things about me. Even many convicts do not know all of this about me. He said that he could not tell me who his source was. But he added that I was incorrigible and therefore the authorities would never let me out of the country. I told him that if his plan failed, I’d end up receiving a death sentence, and at the same time he wouldn’t tell me the entire truth. So I told him to go get stuffed, and he left.
I immediately relayed all of this to Ivan Kovalev, the son of Sergei Adamovich Kovalev, who lived in Moscow, and asked him to find out who this could be. I described this Oleg to him, that was the name of this guy. After a couple of days Ivan told me that this was a KGB trap, and that I urgently needed to go to the KGB and write a statement demanding that they stop their provocations against me. But I decided not to rush things and see what the KGB would try to do next. Time passed and nothing happened, so I calmed down. I thought that perhaps some idiot found out about me from someone else and decided to escape abroad with me, using me as a protection of sorts.
And then on December 10, on the International Human Rights Day, he comes to me again. He is dressed expensively and is acting confidently. And again he talks about the escape. I immediately refused to speak to him. But he began to threaten me, saying that I would regret it if I didn’t join him on his highjacking plan. Well, at that point I could not restrain myself any longer and jumped at him. He shamefully fled. I came home and wrote a statement to the KGB and to the prosecutor's office demanding to stop the provocations. And I told Ivan about it. He told me to be careful and warned me that they could send over some drunk who would try to instigate a fight with me, or a girl… in those times their methods did not include narcotics.
Time passed, and... nothing. They did not call me, as if I have never written my statement. And then, in mid-February, K. N. Khokhulnikov came to me (he died two years ago) with a ticket to Alma-Ata. Why? What is going on? No one tells me anything. I thought that perhaps they were going to exchange me for someone or take me to the West. But why Kazakhstan?
So I arrive in Alma-Ata. I am met there by the local KGB men and Khokhulnikov is with them. They brought me to a hotel, gave me money, told me that this was my per diem, and left. I’m sitting in my room not understanding anything. I went out for a walk, ate in the canteen and returned back to my room. Three times I noticed the same little man near me. Which meant they were keeping an eye on me.
In the morning they knocked on my door. I opened it. The little man stood there telling me to get ready and go out. They put me in a car and drove me... to the court. I entered the courtroom. And there I see this Oleg guy. My jaw dropped. Immediately thought that he got in trouble with the law because of me. I wanted to say that I didn’t know him, but suddenly heard him yell, “What kind of political prisoner are you?! You have served such a long term, but couldn’t understand that I was the same as you? We would have flown away so easily! And now I’ll be given a jail term!” Of course, I was shocked.
I came up to him and said, "If a stranger approaches you in the street and offers you to rob a cash register, will you go with him?” And he stalled. What a complete idiot. The name is Oleg Mikhailov. According to his fellow convicts, he used to be a grass in the labor camp and used to beat his fellow convicts. And there was no one there to set him straight. After he got released he left for the USA and then went to Germany. And he had a lot of bad things to say, but not about me, but about Sergei Kovalev and his son, since he believed that they were to blame for his arrest. Someone in Moscow told him that Ivan had advised me to write that protest statement to the KGB.
It turned out that he was an illegal piecemeal trader who dealt in foreign clothes. He would bring clothes from Moscow to Rostov and to Kazakhstan. He had 12 thousand rubles. In Rostov — when selling jeans one day— he got to know a cop whose patch was the area where I lived. And so the cop told him everything about me. But later I and the guys in Moscow have nevertheless decided that this version of events wasn’t true. Later we found out that the pilot who was teaching him to fly, grassed him out. This pilot’s father was also a pilot and one day discovered his son’s stash of money. He pressed him, and the son told his father where the money came from. The father demanded he goes to the KGB. So this is how the KGB found out about this Oleg person. And then they remembered my statement.
At the time when I wrote it they assumed that I was provoking them, because they haven’t been sending anyone to talk to me. This was the understanding of the events I shared with the guys in Moscow. But something here isn’t right. At a later date I was told that he was a KGB provocateur, but in my case they have failed to achieve whatever it was they wanted to achieve, so they decided to put him in jail. After all, all illegal piecemeal traders who dealt in foreign clothes were operating with the KGB’s knowledge. So here you have this unpleasant story.
The most amazing thing about the KGB is their ability to adapt to all circumstances, to any changes taking place in society. And the fact that their agents stay afloat at all times — nothing seems to be able to sink them.
Vitold Abankin: After the Soviet government collapsed, I was one day walking down the street in Rostov. And saw the KGB man Khokhulnikov walking towards me.
“Vitold Andreyevich, hello!” And he shook my hand with his two hands servilely. “Finally it has happened!”
“What has happened?” I ask.
“What do you mean ‘what’? The Soviet government has collapsed!”
“But what do you have to do with any of it?”
“What do you mean? I have always been on your side, but I couldn’t risk my rank!”
How do you like it? What an extraordinary bunch of rascals! He used to threaten me with a new term and used to say that the Soviet government was forever, and that I would forever remain its eternal enemy, and that I would get another term in jail. He used to intimidate my wife when I was not at home, demanded that she grass on me, but she told me everything. I had to write about this to Attorney General and Khokhulnikov got in trouble at work for this. After that he went berserk and had me followed by his men. Apparently, they wanted to gather some kind of evidence on me.
Then I found out that he had been kicked out of the KGB. A power struggle began there, so they caught him drunk in the street as he was returning home from a friend’s birthday party. There was a big article about this in the Ogonyok magazine.
When the Cossacks started their “revival”, he became their leader. Cossacks from abroad would sent him money. He began to write tearful articles about the Cossacks, using materials gathered from the archives. You see, those archives contained stories which you can’t find anywhere else.
One day two Cossacks ran into me in the street and suggested I make a speech at their gathering. "I'm not going to sit at the same table with a KGB man,” I replied. They were stunned. They said that I was mistaken and that Khokhulnikov had never worked for the KGB. I replied that if I had slandered him, I would be prepared to go to the Theater Square, take off my trousers, and they would be welcome whip me while filming the proceedings on camera. I have never seen those Cossacks again.
Vitold Andreyevich, which poem of yours would you like to include to complete this interview?
Vitold Abankin: I wrote this poem a long time ago, in the labor camp no. 11. And signed it on top: "I. A. Krylov." (Ivan Andreyevich Krylov is Russia’s best-known fabulist who often wrote with satirical bent — AO). When the KGB men would take our hand-written notes to be inspected, they would always return this sheet of paper to me and express amazement at the fact that Krylov could write something like this.
To the Bear
The Bear, having grabbed much land
Stayed in control for many years.
And while provisions weren’t bad
No one had reasons to rejoice.
Defiling land and breaking trees
He also kept in thrall his brothers.
The fun he had made neighbors seethe
And his achievements scared others.
He was convinced he’d built his heaven
The rights of others were just tripe.
Once, having glanced around, he reckoned
He should expand and show his might.
There were people near his land plot
Who lived the way they chose to live.
But he made sure they were taught
The bears’ ways, and urgently.
He burst into a neighbor’s house
Tossing about, like bears do.
Since he believed he was a genius
He brushed off other people’s views.
Years passed and he continues teaching
His neighbors how to live in bliss,
Makes them adapt to bears’ thinking
Those who object will taste his scythe.
But one can’t stay a bear forever
While next-door folk are humankind.
You, bear, should get wise and clever
And leave the bears’ ways behind.