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-Hatton: 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-Hatton.