on freedom, captivity, and friends.
In the second part of his interview with the Soviet History Lessons web site, Vitold Abankin continues to recall time spent in confinement, goes back to the turbulent days of August 1991, and shares memories of his friend and former fellow prisoner Vladimir Bukovsky.
Alissa Ordabai-Hatton: Vitold Andreyevich, your development as a citizen began with the massacre of workers in Novocherkassk on June 2, 1962. How did you learn about what had happened that day? And what was the atmosphere like in the Rostov Region at the time?
Vitold Abankin: Although I grew up on River Don and rowed boats and swam all summer, in winter time I also wanted to swim — but in the pool. So I would go to the pool twice a week. I practiced water polo and was a striker.
And so, on the second of June — one still couldn’t swim in River Don, the water was still cold — I was done with my water polo practice at two in the afternoon, got a bus into town and got off at the corner of Voroshilovsky Prospekt and the main street called Engels Street (now it is called Sadovaya, as it was called under the Tsar), by the huge diary store called Masloprom. Across my shoulder I had a blue sports bag with a white inscription which said “Volna” (meaning “Wave”- AO). I was in a gorgeous mood. Vacations have just begun, so there was no need to go to school. It was summer time. I was 16. Everything around me was blooming, it was a sunny day, and I was walking down the main street of the city. I had plans to spend that evening with my bride-to-be... And suddenly two men in civilian clothes approached me.
"What's in your bag?" one asked and began to unceremoniously unzip it and rummage through my things. And inside was a wet towel, a pair of flip-flops, swimming trunks, a washcloth, and a bar of soap. “He has nothing,” the mans said to his partner. And then pushed me lightly in the back: "Go." And I went, stunned! I had not clue what the matter was. Thoughts swirled inside my head. I was completely disoriented. I went to the Globus bookstore, and again two men came up to me and I got searched again. I was completely in shock! Two old women were standing by the doorway to the store, and one, seeing how they searched me and my surprise, beckoned me with her finger. I came up to her as if in a dream state. “Son,” she said in a whisper, “everyone is having their bags searched, today people were shot in Novocherkassk.”
And at that moment something came over me. The street disappeared, as well as all the people and these women. And I saw the city square, people running, covered in blood. I heard terrible screams, and dead bodies lying on the pavement. And that’s all. It lasted a few seconds. And my eyes opened. I realized what was going on around me. I saw policemen dressed as civilians, wearing pants with blue stripes at the seam. I saw police motorcycles on the traffic markers.
As I continued walking, I approached Gazetnyi Lane. Three guys emerged out of it, stopped at the corner and stood there talking. At once plainclothes policemen rushed to them and ordered them to disperse. The guys began to argue back. They were seized and dragged into an alley, and there stood a police van. They pushed them inside. I walked on and saw a group of excited people who were walking, whispering, and looking around. They tried not to walk on the main street and to use the side alley instead.
They searched me again on Semashko Lane, but I was no longer surprised. People were not allowed on the other side of Engels Street. There was a motorcycle with two policemen on the traffic marker, and by the entrance to the building of the regional communist party committee there was a crowd and police with a dog. Opposite from the regional committee building there was the movie theater called Komsomolets. The screening was stopped and people were being led out. Everyone was being searched, pockets were turned out, women’s handbags were examined, and everyone had their hands inspected too. I could not understand what the reason was. And later I found out that someone had drawn a swastika on the doors of the regional committee. So the authorities were looking for chalk.
I walked on and got searched by the Moskovskaya Hotel for the third time. Then I turned onto Budennovsky Avenue, got on a bus and went home. I now had a plan to make a bomb and throw it at the building of the regional committee, to avenge the dead.
Once I got home, I took the some money and went back to the city center. The Dynamo sports goods store had a hunting department where they sold guns, cartridges, and gunpowder. I bought two packets of gun powder for 1 ruble 40 kopecks and returned home. I went to my father’s shipyard and found a piece of pipe 6 cm in diameter and 40 cm long. I brought it home. I flattened one end of the pipe. And I slightly flattened the other end too, but not completely. Then I put a nail inside the pipe and finally flattened the other end. I withdrew the nail and began to pour gun powder into the hole. Then I made a fuse. And then my father finally got home from work. He took the bomb away from me and said, ”Until the all the people understand who is deceiving and exploiting them, the efforts of loners will remain futile."
General Lebed, with whom you were friends, witnessed the execution of workers in Novocherkassk first-hand. What is known about his impressions?
Vitold Abankin: He was originally from Novocherkassk. He was sitting on a tree when the workers got shot. Another boy who sat on a neighboring branch, got killed. Lebed ran home covered in blood, and later developed a stammer and a bed-wetting problem. Imagine surviving such horror! When he ran for president, some villain made a public written statement along the lines that we don’t need a president who wets his bed. The bed-wetting story had been a secret, but someone found out about it, and exploited it in this vile way. His problems later passed, but the hatred for the commies didn’t. He told me that he joined the communist party in order to harm it from the inside and to try to topple it.
When the question was being decided whether Bukovsky would be running for president, I talked to Alexander Ivanovich (Lebed — AO), and he said that he respected Bukovsky tremendously and would support him with all his might. He emphasized the words “with all might”, that is, he hinted at the army resources which were subordinated to him. I relayed this to Bukovsky, but he avoided discussing this issue.
When I voiced the idea of a monument to the massacred Novocherkassk workers, Alexander Ivanovich promised to pay for a block of marble to be brought to Novocherkassk. As you may know, the nearby city of Krasnoyarsk has a marble stone quarry. And I told Bukovsky about this. He spoke to Ernst Neizvestny, and Ernst said that he was prepared to design this monument free of charge. The only thing we’d have to pay for would be the workers’ labor cost. Bukovsky said, “This is not a problem,” and promised to take care of this side of the issue.
Were there any sketches left, or drawings?
Vitold Abankin: Things didn’t get as far as sketches. Ernst might have thought of something, but Bukovsky never mentioned.
What do you think of General Lebed’s cause of death?
Vitold Abankin: When I tell people that the general was killed, they are horrified — they don’t believe such things are possible. Then I give them examples, such as the assassinated Bulgarian poet Markov, or how they made an attempt on Solzhenitsyn’s life, or how people were shot in Novocherkassk. And my opponents give in. Where there is KGB, there is no morality, no conscience, no honor, no compassion, nothing. I talked with his pilots. Both they and I agree that he was killed.
The helicopter flew in bad weather at low altitude. Only a complete idiot, knowing that he is surrounded by the hills, by 30-meter-tall pine trees, and some 50-meter-tall high-voltage power line poles, could drop the altitude to such a minimum. And his pilots used to fly in the Afghan mountains and were precise down to each centimeter with their rotor. That is, they were not just flying aces, they were tightrope artists. So they suddenly became suicides? Or were they drunk? Nonsense! Their altimeter was out of order. There is a movie called Children of Captain Grant. In that film a pirate places an ax under the compass, and the compass starts showing the wrong direction. Same thing with that helicopter. The investigation results are classified.
Judging by your stories, you were a rather extraordinary teenager. Would you share an interesting episode from your childhood?
Vitold Abankin: As a kid I was interested in the subject of space exploration, and so I made rockets. At first they were small and ran on celluloid film. The film burned, emitted smoke, and the rocket flew. Then I started making larger rockets. They flew 300-500 meters. I lived near a DOSAAF airfield (DOSAAF stands for Volunteer Society for Cooperation with the Army, Aviation, and Navy — AO), and one day I dragged home a spare aluminum airplane tank. The idea was to make a rocket out of it and fly to the Moon. I used to launch rockets with Ira, who at the time was my bride-to-be, and now is my wife.
I had a friend (he died last year) by the name of Leonid Kadobkin. His father had a rifle. So one day I made a 170-centimeter-long rocket, stuffed with film, and we went to the airfield to launch it. And this moron poured a packet of gunpowder inside that rocket. We launched it, and it flew beautifully. And then we saw a helicopter landing. And at that moment our rocket exploded. The pilots got scared. We ran to the cemetery — to hide. But they caught us and brought us to some kind of basement, full of barrels of oil, fuel and so on.
One of the pilots said, "Now the prosecutor and the judge will arrive, and you will be sentenced to death." And I replied, taking a box of matches out of my pocket: “I’ll make some music before I die.” He got so scared, they pulled us out of the basement, gave us a kick in the ass and told us to get lost. But after a couple of days we again started to bring pilots apples, pears, apricots and flew with them in airplanes and helicopters. Ira was away on holiday at the time and regretted not seeing the explosion.
Your innate courage found its perfect use in August 1991, when you found yourself in the thick of political events. You came to Moscow from Rostov to rebury the remains of poet Yuri Galanskov — to transport them from the labor camp where he died to the Kotlyakovsky cemetery in Moscow. You sold your new car for this purpose. And suddenly you found yourself at the epicenter of a historical shift. What do you recall from those days?
Vitold Abankin: On August 19 I woke up at the Rossiya Hotel at 5:30 in the morning because the building was trembling. I listened, but the corridor was quiet. Everyone was asleep. I left my room and went to the window. And began to look at the Kitaisky Driveway. And I saw moving tanks. I ran back into the room and called Gleb Yakunin (Russian priest and dissident, and elected member of the parliament from 1990 to 1995— AO). He said, ”Vitold, it’s a coup! Go to the Moscow City Council! I'll be there soon." I called Boris Evseev, a film director who lived on the same floor as me. He woke everyone up and we quickly left the hotel. A tank was standing right in front of the entrance, and a yawning officer was strolling around it. We asked him what was the matter. "We were raised at night by an alert, and ordered to move here. Here we stand, and we don’t understand anything." We were filming with two cameras — a VHS and a film camera.
This video shows parts of footage shot in August 1991 in Moscow and Mordovia and includes reburial of Yuri Galanskov, a rally held in his honor in the Mayakovsky Square, and an interview with Vladimir Bukovsky.
We started walking toward the Moscow City Council. Tanks and armored personnel carriers were moving along the road. Near the Moscow City Council there were a lot of tanks and armored vehicles. Tankers were sitting on top of their vehicles, exchanging remarks. And then some girls appeared with red carnations and began to distribute them to the soldiers, thrusting flowers down the gun barrels. The soldiers were sleepy, but then came to life, started to smile, and helped the girls to climb on top of their vehicles. We filmed a lot. And then we decided to go to the Supreme Soviet. We took the subway and got off at Barrikadnaya Station.
The space around the Supreme Soviet was empty. Behind the building we saw dry tree trunks sawed into chocks. And then we saw a black Volga motorcar, which drove up to entrance number 8. Boris Yeltsin and the driver stepped out of the car. We waved at him, Yeltsin waved back and entered the building.
I told the guys that this was a serious matter and that we should start building a barricade. While the cameras kept filming, we started pulling wood chocks together and stacking them on top of each other. A few minutes later the people started to gather around the Supreme Soviet building. Some came with their hands tucked in their pockets, others were dragging metal rods, pipes, ramps, boards, slats and all kinds of rubbish.
Out of this, barricades began to grow. And after half an hour, trucks with foundation blocks and floor slabs began to arrive. A crane came with them and unloaded them all onto the pavement. Immediately the barricade became higher. A car came with pipes and rods. The guys laid it all on top of concrete slabs. The barricade was growing in front of our eyes and was already presenting a serious obstacle, baring its pipe-shaped teeth. No tank, much less a lesser kind of armored vehicle, would be able to overcome it.
Young people were singing all kinds of different songs strumming their guitars. It was fun, and no one felt any danger. I decided to go around the Supreme Soviet building. Anatoly (the cameraman) and Boris Evseev came with me. We would strike up conversations with people. I suggested that people bring a hacksaw which would help cut metal bars into pieces — so that people would feel armed. I also suggested that it would be good to buy bottled ammonia and, in case of an attack by the police, throw those bottles at cops. It would serve a high-grade tear gas. Several guys ran to the store.
We continued walking, and people would come up to me all the time and ask who I was and who was doing the filming. I told them that I had been in prison for 12 years, and that now it was our time to govern and we can’t afford to miss this chance. I would add that all heads of factories, production plants, and so on, should be immediately dismissed and normal, honest, active-minded replacements should be elected. Someone told me that these old bosses were professionals and could not be removed. To which I replied that these professionals led the country to a disaster, that their initiative had always been suppressed, that they were used to following instructions from above, that you could not build a new society with old cadres.
In short, I was initiating rallies. A geologist came up to me and said that he had just returned from an expedition to Magadan (a port town gateway to the Kolyma region in the Russian Far East, a region known for its GULAG labor camps and subarctic climate —AO). There he saw old labor camps being reconstructed and new ones being built. I had to urgently call Sergei Adamovich Kovalev (the legendary human rights activist — AO) at the Supreme Soviet about this, but all the street phones around the Supreme Soviet building were broken. This was the KGB’s doing.
There was a five-story apartment building behind the Supreme Soviet, and I went to one of the first-floor window. It was open, and an old lady was looking out of it, observing the goings-on. I asked her if there was a telephone in her apartment. I said that I needed to call the Supreme Soviet. She gave me the receiver, and I told her which number to dial. I informed Sergey Adamovich about the construction of camps. He replied that he would report it at a meeting that would be held any minute now. He asked me to come to the Supreme Soviet, but I said that here, on the street, on the barricades, history was being made — the exact thing we used to dream about about while in camps and prisons.
I walked away from the apartment building and started circling around the Supreme Soviet again. Then a Volga car drove up, and General P. Grachev came out with his personal aide. The Supreme Soviet was surrounded by a triple ring of people who have locked their elbows, so it was impossible to get through them. The general looked at each entrance to the Supreme Soviet in turn, and did not know what to do. I walked up to him and introduced myself. He told me his name. I asked if he wanted to enter the building. He replied that he had been summoned to a meeting at the Supreme Soviet. I took him along a secret path to entrance number 8 and handed him over to Sergey Adamovich Kovalev. This entire episode was being filmed.
We went again around the Supreme Soviet building. And again I told people about Sakharov, Solzhenitsyn, Bukovsky and other political prisoners. Valentin Alexandrovich Novolt, an artist, approached me and said that he had an idea to paint a series of portraits of political prisoners. Less than ten meters on, a young guy approached me, introducing himself, and saying that his place of work was the Tooshino police department and that their police chief lieutenant-colonel Shvidkin threatened staff, saying that if anyone went to the Supreme Soviet, that person would be fired. This guy was with his father, also a policeman. I went back and again phoned Sergey Kovalev. He replied that he was going to send a group of parliamentarians to that police department. And we walked on.
On my second round I met — it was already about 11 o’clock — the reporters from Izvestia, Ogonyok, XX Century and the World magazine, New Life magazine, Glasnost, Komsomolskaya Pravda, Slovo publishing house, and Vesti TV. Everyone gave me their phone numbers, and I later collaborated with many of them. New Life soon printed my short story, Anatoly or Five Stabs.
We were now approaching the front door of the Supreme Soviet. There were guards. I began speaking to the people again, and several guards came to listen. I asked them if there was any military personnel on the roof. I told them that the military could drop its troops on the roof from a helicopter. All the time everyone was wondering whether the Supreme Soviet building could get attacked. Two guards immediately ran to the entrance and began to talk to some colonel, and then quickly went in. Later, I saw armed people on the roof.
As we were circling the building, I saw tanks near the CMEA building (the Council for Mutual Economic Assistance —AO). Boris Evseev and Anatoly (the cameraman) said they had run out of film and needed to go to the store to buy more. I wanted to stay where I was and wait for them, but then I got an idea to speak to the commander of the tanks. And I climbed onto the lead tank.
A major leaned out of the open tower. I asked him why they were standing here. He replied that they had been given an order. I told him about General M. K. Shaposhnikov, who too had been given an order to drive his tanks at protesting unarmed workers, and how he refused to follow that order. Shaposhnikov ordered his men to give up their ammunition and did not interfere with the workers’ demonstration. The major replied that he was not going to shoot at people. However, my story about the massacre of workers in Novocherkassk and about General Shaposhnikov made a strong impression on him. His name was major Sergei Vladimirovich Evdokimov, and he gave me his various phone numbers.
I ran back to the apartment building to call Sergey Kovalev, but he wasn’t there. Some guy answered the phone and I told him to urgently tell Sergey Adamovich that Major S. Evdokimov was going over to the side of the people with his 10 tanks, and that several parliamentarians needed to come out of the Supreme Soviet carrying Russian flags and approach the tanks. I then returned to the CMEA building and began to tell people to remove pipes and rods from the tank tracks, since the major was now on our side.
Boxes of sandwiches were brought in, and I began to help distribute them. Then someone brought entire stretchers full of food, then more and more. Thousands of people needed to be fed. Bottles with different drinks were brought in too, as well as water. As I was walking around with a box of sandwiches, I saw guys sawing steel bars with a hacksaw. Boxes with ammonia bottles stood nearby. I told them they were doing a good job and handed them a box of sandwiches to eat themselves and to distribute among others. And then Vesti TV reporter Vadim Kukushkin came up to me with a camera, and I gave him a short interview.
As soon as he left, a man approached me and said that there were armored vehicles on the bridge near the White House. I ran there. Indeed, a dozen armored carriers stood on the bridge over the Moscow River. The commander was a lieutenant-colonel. He did not give me his name. I suggested to him — citing the example of Major Evdokimov — to go over to the side of the people. But he waved his hands, looking frightened, and said that he would be shot if he didn’t follow orders. Then girls came running with carnations and began to hand them out to soldiers.
“And if you are ordered to shoot at civilians, like it happened in Novocherkassk, are you not afraid to become a butcher and then go on trial?” I pressed on him.
“I will not shoot at people, I will not follow such an order.”
"So they will shoot you and make your soldiers kill people! Go on, stay alive and be a hero. I am talking to you on behalf of Boris Nikolaevich.” (Yeltisn —AO).
“No, no, I can’t. I'd rather get out of here,” he answered nervously and shouted to his men: “Turn around!”
Armored vehicles began to turn. By accident one struck another slightly, and sparks went flying. Five minutes later, the armored carriers have left the bridge.
And then I thought of something that made me jump. I had the address of General Shaposhnikov. He was in retreat from the Rostov heat at a house in the Moscow suburbs. I ran to get a taxi. But suddenly I got stopped by TV journalist Emilia Ashirnikova from RT channel, asking me for an interview. I briefly talked about myself and promised to bring General Shaposhnikov to the barricades. Then I was on my way.
This was my time, a dream come true, my hope for the collapse of the totalitarian system. My wings have grown. I wasn’t walking, I was flying. I kept meeting new people, ideas came pouring out of my head, and I was trying to implement them all. On the White House barricades I was like fish in water. This was my day, the day of our people, it was a universal celebration.
I came to the general’s house, but... his doctors have just left. Matvey Kuzmich (Shapashnikov — AO) was already 85 years old. But he was ready to go with me to the barricades, and he came out wearing his dress jacket and his Hero star, but his daughter wouldn’t let him go. She stood in the doorway, arms stretched out: “I won’t let you go! Do you want to get arrested? The strain will be too much!” I replied, “Please understand, this is our victory! The Soviet regime has collapsed. It tormented our people and your father, and now he will stand on the balcony of the White House, next to Boris Yeltsin and Major Evdokimov, who is also a tank soldier! Please understand, this is his finest hour!” But the daughter stood her ground and scolded me, and did not let her father go.
I went back to the White House. Major Evdokimov was already standing next to Yeltsin on the balcony. I started to look for Boris Evseev and Anatoly, but they were nowhere to be found. It was getting dark. Finally they appeared. It was too late to film, and we went back to the hotel.
This is how the first day passed near by the White House. Later, in early September, we still went to General Matvey Kuzmich Shaposhnikov and interviewed him. He was sitting in a chair under an apple tree. I gave him an issue of the Pravda newspaper and asked him to rip it up and say: "This is not the truth. This is a lie. Now I will tell the truth." From that moment on the camera started rolling.
Tell us a little bit about General Shaposhnikov.
Vitold Abankin: “I do not see any enemies in front of me” — this is how he answered on June 2, 1962 in Novocherkassk when ordered to go against the people. He was a military general who went through the entire war — from the beginning to the end — and at one point found himself in a burning tank on the River Dnieper. After he refused to follow orders they stripped him of his rank and expelled him from the communist party. The KGB threatened him with prison, but did not have the guts to actually put him there. They could not strip him of his Hero star either. He then wrote letters to various authorities, newspapers and magazines, denounced the anti-national regime, signing his letters "Vissarion the Furious." Years passed, things began to change. His rank and title were returned to him, but he refused to reinstate himself as a member of the communist party.
In 1991, the first rally was held in Novocherkassk, held by the democratic forces, which marked the 29th anniversary of the massacre. Matvey Kuzmich made a speech in that same square where they tried to force him to shoot at people. Each year I used to bring him to rallies in Novocherkassk on June 2. In 1994, he could no longer speak publicly — his health was declining. And three weeks later, on June 27, he was gone. Such people are the conscience of the nation. They determine its moral status. I am grateful to providence for crossing my path with Matvey Kuzmich. Maybe someone some day will be able to get hold of the footage which was shot in 1991 about General Shaposhnikov and which is a part of the documentary now held by the film studio in Yekaterinburg.
Vladimir Bukovsky, who in 1991 returned to Russia after 15 years away, was greeted by the people with much enthusiasm. How did it look?
Vitold Abankin: I especially remember one occasion at the Kosmos Hotel. Bukovsky was holding a talk there for the press and for the Muscovites. For over two hours he was answering questions and talking about the West and his life and activities there. And also about his exchange. The entire auditorium shook and roared with applause and praise. And then it was announced that the meeting was over. Alissa, the entire audience got up and rushed to the stage. The seats cracked. There was screaming, human bodies crushing against each other. A total nightmare. We ran out through the back door. The police ran with us. We jumped into a car and drove away. We were completely scared. A crowd is a terrible force. With all their respect and with all their love, they can crush you to death.
In this photo you can see Bukovsky, me, and Seva Abdulov, the film actor, who was a friend of Bukovsky. He played a role in the film The Meeting Place Cannot be Changed. He plays a thief there who did not betray the undercover cop. A newspaper journalist is standing with his back turned to the camera, I don’t remember which newspaper he was from.
And in this photo Bukovsky is visiting artist Anatoly Senin (on the left) and the office of Posev magazine, which belonged to the National Alliance of Russian Solidarists, or NTS, as it was abbreviated in Russian (on the right).
By the way, did you know that Bukovsky donated all the money he earned from the sales of his book To Build a Castle to Democratic Russia to support democracy? And the sum was very large. In the warehouse where the books were stored, a hot water pipe had burst, and steam damaged the covers of more than a thousand books. The book flew off the shelves. People were coming from different cities and buying thousands of copies of the book. Only the damaged ones remained in the warehouse. And then the coal miners come in a truck. They too have heard about Bukovsky’s book. And they were told that there were no more books. So they made a scene, and were shown the damaged copies. They took everything. These copies were given to them for free.
And how did the officials react to Bukovsky?
Vitold Abankin: Bukovsky spoke to various audiences in Moscow. I don’t remember what kind of parliamentarian it was, but the topic of their discussion was the economy. Bukovsky said, “Do you want to build Soviet socialism again? You have invited experts to conduct consultations who have no serious standing in the West. What you need now is a specialist in free market economy because you need to help the country recover as soon as possible. What you need is a free market specialist to help the country quickly. And to begin with, I would allow people own their own housing, this is the start.” The parliamentarian was making ridiculous noises, his eyes lowered. People were later allowed to own their own housing, but with great delay.
From Vladimir Bukovsky’s 1994 essay Yeltsin’s First Hundred Days: The “Privatization Cheques,” or “vouchers” as they are more commonly known in Russia, with a face value of 10,000 rubles each, were duly printed and distributed to every Russian citizen. But the popular response was lukewarm: No one knew what sort of the state property would be available for “vouchers.” Would it be something useful, like land or housing, or would it be a tiny piece of a gigantic and rusty factory, which would never be profitable? Meanwhile, the “vouchers” simply added yet another trillion or so rubles to an already uncontrollable rate of inflation as they went into circulation and became legal tender in Russia.
“Market reform” ended in Russia, leaving people twenty times poorer, more disillusioned and more angry. It could not serve the communists better: While the country still had neither democracy, nor a market economy, both ideas were utterly discredited. The outrageous robbery of Yeltsin’s first one hundred days completely obliterated from the people’s memory the crimes and oppression of the previous seventy-five years. Encouraged, the nomenklatura went onto the offensive, gradually forcing Yeltsin, first, to abandon his policies, then, to sacrifice his team, and, finally, to fight for his own political survival while his constant vacillations between confrontation and compromise only decreased his popularity.
Vitold Andreyevich, I would like to hear from you a personal recollection from your time with Bukovsky in 1991. You haven’t seen each other for 15 years, and then met again after so many years.
Vitold Abankin: Vovka (a diminutive from Vladimir — AO) decided to treat me to a meal and invited me to a restaurant at the Savoy Hotel, which was frequented by diplomats and similar kind of high-flying people. I brought with me Viktor Idolenko (who worked at the prosecutor’s office and traveled with me to Mordovia to recover the remains of Yury Galanskov), and who asked me to introduce him to Bukovsky. Victor brought his bride-to-be with him. The dining hall was all gold. A black musician was playing the piano under a palm tree. There were carpets everywhere and gilded tablecloths. Each table had its own waiter. So it was a flashy gesture on Vovka’s part. So they bring us these huge trays, and on each of those trays we see... six snails, red tweezers and a red hook which looks like a hook for crocheting.
"Vova, what the hell is this?" — I ask him. He says, ”Don’t be a barbarian. It’s a healthy dish — snails baked in garlic sauce. Look how one should eat them." And he shows how — uses the hook to pick out something black inside and eats it. And holds the snail itself with tweezers. There is tiny amount of food in there — less than a gram, smaller than a sparrow’s beak. But Viktor hadn’t eaten anything since early morning. "Vova, we are hungry, and you are showing off, like rich people do. Give us meat patties and fried potatoes. What you have here is disgusting. I saw such snails in Rostov crawling on the bushes by the dump. I’ll bring you a bucket of those for free." The waiter, a young guy, nearly fell over laughing. Vovka pouted.
Then they bring us a huge plate. On it sits a cabbage leaf, cut in an ornate pattern, the size of a third of a human palm. And in the middle of that leaf there is a small mound of something, like a sparrow’s dropping. Vovka turns his eyes upwards and eats it. I am having a go at him again: "Are laughing at us, you bourgeois? We’ll be leaving now. Give us something to fress on. If they gave you this sort of food while you were in your cell, you’d immediately start knocking and calling the guard." He flashed his eyes at me.
Then they brought ice cream. Which, in truth, was tasty. But portions were baby-size. We left the restaurant. “Vova,” I said, “we are now going to the hotel.” He was paying for my stay at the Rossiya Hotel. Everyone at the hotel already knew me there. We went to the hotel restaurant. I said to the head waiter Alexander Ivanovich, "Sasha, see who is with me? Let us have some simple food, without showing off, you know what I mean." So they brought us hot and juicy meat patties. Golden fried potatoes. Lovely salad. Cocoa and cakes. And Vova began to munch with much enthusiasm. “Vova,” I said, “Aren’t you already full, having eaten your snails?” And he pouted, looked angrily at me, as if I was his judge at a trial, and continued to chew with great pleasure. I am laughing as I recall all this. It is sad that he is no longer with us. In the end, I have never gotten around to visiting him. But no worries, I’ll see him again one day.
Clockwise: Vladimir Bukovsky, Vitold Abankin, the driver, Viktor Idolenko, Boris Evseev.
It’s lovely that your recollections have so much humor to them. Bukovsky shouldn’t be remembered as some kind of stone statue. It is important, I think, despite all his great deeds, that he is remembered as a real person, with all the funny episodes and Western habits he had acquired that overlapped with his Russian character. Savoy, for sure, even then, wasn’t a cheap establishment?
Vitold Abankin: Bukovsky paid 450 dollars for that “lunch.” I told him, "Vova, with this kind of money I could make a revolution in Russia." He wanted to impress us by showing off. And so he did. I don’t like restaurants. I’m used to eating at home, but if I go out, I go to simple eateries. In Rostov, in my youth, I knew a chef by the name of Victor, who worked at a restaurant downtown called Moskovskiy. One day I was walking past, and he stood there in the doorway, and said, "Come in, I'll give you something to eat." I went in. The restaurant was empty. He took a piece of meat from the refrigerator and began to prepare it to get cooked. And on the stove I saw a baking tray with meat patties. "What are you doing?" I asked. “Making you a meat patty." — “But you already have them cooked right here." — "What are you! Those patties are for customers!" And he said it with such contempt that I had remembered this for the rest of my life. He cooked a patty for me. I’ve never eaten such tasty food. In eateries you can get simple and quite tasty food, and restaurants offer the same kind of stuff, but at an exorbitant price, plus you have to wait.
Bukovsky’s analytical mind allowed him to predict great changes taking place in the communist camp in 1991.
Vitold Abankin: In 1991, the Poles offered him an opportunity to cross the border from Poland to Russia illegally. But Margaret Thatcher persuaded him not to do this. She reminded him that he still had an unexpired prison term and if something went wrong in Russia, they could put him in prison again, especially given the illegal crossing of the border.
From February to May 1991, his organization, Resistance International, trained 76 participants of underground resistance at a base in Poland. It also established a clandestine radio communications network center with broadcasting stations in Western Ukraine, Belarus, Lithuania, and Tbilisi. One radio station was located in the building of the Lithuanian parliament in Vilnius and broadcast at a time when the Soviet troops surrounded the parliament. In one of your newspaper interviews you once said that power should had been seized in August 1991, but human rights activists said that their job was to protect human rights, not to engage in politics. Tell me, why did this point of view prevail at the time? Why wasn’t power seized there and then? Why did communist nomenclature continue to govern?
Vitold Abankin: In May 1991 former political prisoners gathered at a congress in Moscow. Lyudmila Alekseeva and her supporters — people who were never imprisoned — was also in attendance. The question was about our participation in government of the country. Alekseeva fervently insisted that we were human rights defenders, and therefore should remain above political squabbling, and that politics was a dirty business, and we should have nothing to do with it. I could not stand it and spoke out, saying that it was precisely we who would have to make politics clean and open and that based on this very principle we should participate in governing the country. She was categorically against it. It got to the point where we got up and left. Sergey Adamovich Kovalev was with us. At the time there was a lot of reporting in the press about the split in the human rights movement.
So this was how it started. As for her, she became engaged in pure politics, and for that reason the authorities favored her. If she ever dared to go head-on against the government, a lot of things would be different, but she — perhaps without realizing it — tried to reason with the authorities. She began a dialogue with the authorities and thereby helped them violate human rights and grow strong. The authorities considered her their asset. I always criticized her for this, and she strongly disliked me. Did not even say hello to me at meetings.
Our mistake was that in 1991 we moved away from Boris Yeltsin, and he got quickly surrounded by adventurers and swindlers. He promised to hold elections to the Supreme Soviet in September, but did not fulfill his promise. In December the Moscow City Council member Ilya Zaslavsky criticized Yeltsin for this. Yeltsin got angry and said that if he had held elections in the fall, “rally democrats” would come to power and disorder would ensue across the country. Everyone was shocked by his words. After all, these, as he said, “rally democrats” took to the streets, led the people, and saved the country from the organizers of the coup. Then it became clear that the gains of 1991 were now lost. But the people remained silent and no one took to the streets. And then everything went back to the way things were before.
From Vladimir Bukovsky’s 1994 essay Yeltsin’s First Hundred Days: A society emerging from a totalitarian nightmare usually has no political or social structures capable of stabilizing it in transition except those created by and tainted by the totalitarian system. And they are most likely to oppose the changes, thus contributing to political instability typical for all post-totalitarian countries. The new institutions, although numerous and noisy, are usually tiny and weak to the point of merely symbolic existence. They are no match for the well-entrenched, all-pervasive, mafia-like structures evolving from the old regime. They are even too small to replace the governing apparatus and, therefore, the old nomenklatura remains in control of all executive functions of a presumably new “democratic” state.
It should be remembered that what we call “nomenklatura” is not just an ordinary bureaucracy, but a whole stratum of the society (18 million strong according to some estimates) with its own vested interests, its own connections with the West, its own accumulated wealth, and its own complicity in past crimes to unite its members. Its mere existence poses real threat to fragile democracy, to say nothing of its control over the executive branch of the government. Add endless ethnic conflicts, fantastic corruption, skyrocketing crime rate, general apathy of the demoralized population, and the task of transition becomes all but impossible.
Vitold Abankin: To expand on the issue of seizing power, bear in mind that each of us got to the camps independently from one another and got acquainted with each other only while already there. There were very few who knew each other from the time before prison. VSKhSON — which was a political party (and they even had weapons) — was planning to make A. Ogurtsov head of state. The KGB became alarmed when it found out about their existence. Multiple arrests were made in different cities. They already had a wide network, although it was not very large. They had a goal and they had a program. While each of us had his own separate case. That is, we were disconnected from each other before our arrests and we were not making any plans while in the camp. We simply fought for our rights which were being violated by the administration. And we still tried to reason with the authorities. Most of us, anyway. My opinion was that the Soviet regime should be overthrown, but many argued back that we have had enough revolutions and already got more than what we have bargained for in 1917. “Enough is enough” sort of reasoning. My opponents would insist that step-by-step changes were the way to go, and so on.
I’d also like to mention that the KGB men — who would be dressed in civilian clothes and wouldn’t tell us who they were — would now and then come to Vladimir Prison. The prison KGB man Obrubov would scape and bow to them, which meant that they were some kind of high-ranking KGB officers. They would call us in and ask such questions, for the answers to which free people go to prison. And for asking such questions people go to prison too. We thought that they wanted to know the truth about our country, because outside of prison gates no one would tell them the truth.
And we were subscribed to dozens of newspapers, magazines and knew more than ordinary people, and even at times more than those KGB men. After all, we did not work, only read, discussed the country’s domestic and foreign affairs, held discussions, drew conclusions, looked for hidden agendas. We taught ourselves to read between the lines and to decipher real meanings from behind the retouched Soviet verbiage of the newspaper articles. We were actually an analytical center, and the KGB wanted to know what the enemy was thinking.
Obrubov used to sit outside our door on a stool and listen to our conversations. It was his job to draft reports for the bosses. And his bosses were using those reports to come to their own conclusions. And by the end of the first year of our stay in prison, the KGB officers started to visit the prison and conduct interviews. On several occasions prisoners were taken to Moscow for re-education, but the re-education didn’t work. None of us wrote any pardon petitions, although this was suggested to everyone. I told the KGB man that if I wrote such a petition, he would be the first one to despise me deep down. If he were a normal human being that is.
How did your days go in the Vladimir prison?
Vitold Abankin: In prison we had our routine. After breakfast, silence: we read, studied languages and so on. Then a walk in the yard. And after that, a discussion of various issues. The radio receiver, which was always too loud, would be covered with a pea jacket. But when the latest news came on, we listened and then discussed it. Then lunch. And after lunch, silence again. If there was an urgent matter in the newspapers, then we would discuss it for a couple of minutes.
One day we sat in silence and suddenly heard snoring outside our door. Which meant that Obrubov had fallen asleep on his stool. Alexei Safronov ran up to the door and kicked it real hard. Tumbling noise and swearing followed from the outside. Obrubov fell off his stool and was cursing us. In the evening, after dinner, we would discuss what we had read in magazines and in the newspapers, would hold a debate, read poetry, and tell stories. This was our free time when we could be creative.
Tell us about one such creative evening.
Vitold Abankin: There we are, in the Vladimir Prison, with Bukovsky. And suddenly the radio begins to broadcast a poem by Robert Rozhdestvensky dedicated to Leonid Brezhnev. We were in shock! So we started to discuss this — how Rozhdestvensky could write such sycophantic drivel? Maybe they forced him, or maybe... And immediately a poem came to me: "For a slimy piece of goody, you sold your very soul and body. So take a sip of people's blood, wash down your creepy dirty stunt.” Bukovsky grimaced: "Yuck, such disgusting words. 'Slimy' — how disgusting. But how precise. I can’t believe what he’s fallen into.”
So I wrote a letter to the radio station to be passed on to Rozhdestvensky and included these verses of mine. I gave the letter to the duty guard the next morning. And a few days later I got 15 days in a punishment cell for violating the regime, i.e. talking to inmates in the neighboring cell through the toilet bowl. (Toilet bowls in Soviet prisons allowed sound to be carried to neighboring cells and could be used as communicating devices — AO). When already in my punishment cell, I asked the officer what exactly I was being punished for. “For your letter to Rozhdestvensky,” he whispered to me, looking over his shoulder.
One day I read an article in Pravda newspaper saying that American propaganda slanders Cuba and its leader Fyodor Castrato (as we called Fidel Castro). The article said that there were no Cuban troops in Angola and there cannot ever be, blah-blah-blah. So I kept this article. I knew this was one of Pravda’s lies. A month passes and I see another article published in Pravda. Which says that yes, indeed, Cuban troops are fighting in Angola, helping the Angolan people in their struggle for independence. And again, America is to blame for something.
So I cut out this article too and sent both clippings to the untruthful Pravda with one question — whose propaganda is lying? A week goes by. And then they give me 15 days in a punishment cell because my drinking cup remained on the table during the night. Everyone was in shock. This was something unheard of. Many inmates would leave their drinking cups on the table, but the administration chose to punish me, saying that I violated the regime. So I'm sitting in my punishment cell. The feeding flap opens, and the sadist Lt. Col. Ugodin, the deputy head of the prison regime, glances at me (he was the one who watched inmate Tikhonov being beaten to death by his cellmates) and says, "Well, how do you like your cell, Abankin? Do you have complaints or statements to make?" I asked him, "What exactly have you put me here for? This drinking cup nonsense if just a pretense.” — "Well, Abankin, you consider yourself smart, but don’t you understand that you now find yourself here because you have caught Pravda on a lie." He then smiled maliciously and left.
Vladimir Prison was one of the worst prisons in the USSR. What else do you recall about it?
Vitold Abankin: Walking yards in Vladimir are located on the roofs of prison buildings. And we, the inmates, were not seeing any greenery at all. No grass, no trees, no flowers for three years solid. Only the sky and the iron bars above our heads. And the figure of the guard against the sky. There were inmates who have spent 10, 15, or more years there. So one day somehow the wind brought a maple leaf to our yard. It was a miracle! We grabbed it, began examining it, pressed it to our lips, to our cheeks. We rejoiced like small children. We took it to our cell, and it was lying on our table. Then it dried up, but we didn’t throw it away. I fell asleep one night with these verses in my head:
Outside there is spring and freedom
And flowers, and you waiting for me.
And over here there are no seasons
Prison bars and walls is all I can see.
Mischievous wind while playing freely
Once brought us a maple leaf.
We marveled at God’s creation
And cursed the regime and its appointees.
Don’t be sad and forgive me my ways,
Soon I’ll be back in our native Rostov.
I’ll knock on your door while holding for you
A bouquet smelling of meadows and lawns.
This poem has now become one of my songs.
Vitold Abankin: "Bukovsky used to draw castles while in prison, and have made a castle as a decoration for my garden."
You are known not only as a poet, but also as a musician. You sing beautifully, and you used to have your own band in Rostov which made studio recordings and music videos. Is this talent innate or have you worked to develop voice?
Vitold Abankin: My father used to say that my mother sang well and played the piano and the guitar. At the age of 12 I felt an urge to sing. So I began to try to sing songs of Robertino Lorreti. It turned out great, and I sounded just like him. But I did not want to sing pioneer songs or songs of the Komsomol (Young Communists League — AO), so I hid my talent, refused to sing in public and had fail grades in singing at school. At home I would close all doors and windows and would just sing, sing, and sing. So my voice improved. Even my father did not know that I was singing. If I opened my mouth at school, they’d force me to sing communist drivel.
Here is a story from the Vladimir Prison. There was a guard there, a good-natured man. He would open all the feeding flaps during lunch time, and while food was being distributed, he would sit there, dozing off, by his nightstand. Food service inmates (who were called “cherpak”) would pass on notes (called “ksiva”) to the inmates, as well as various goodies sent from the outside (called “podogrev”), while the guard would sit there and snore.
So one day I stuck my head out through the feeding flap and sang loudly so that the entire floor could hear: “Zavyalkin! I will not hide — my love for cream is justified." Zavyalkin was the last name of the head of the prison, and he was a colonel. All the cells immediately fell silent. Vovka (Vladimir Bukovsky — AO) was completely stunned and said, “You have such a voice, why don’t you sing?” And I replied that in truth I had no voice and was simply goofing off.
Then rumors started to spread around prison that one of the inmates was an opera singer. Years later I sent my recordings to Vovka. He was in shock and said that I had ruined my talent. And I replied that it’s better to be completely numb than to sing communist gibberish.
Music, lyrics, and singing by Vitold Abankin, the leader of Article 58 music group.
Were there desperate people in the Vladimir Prison?
Vitold Abankin: One day we were walking down the prison corridor to be taken for a walk: Alexei Safronov, me, and Bukovsky. An old guard who had spent over 40 years working in prison was walking ahead of us. He was a good-natured, kindly old man. He used to call the inmates “boys". Bukovsky was walking to the right side, next to the wall where the cell doors were. And suddenly he slipped when passing by one of the cells. I grabbed him, otherwise he’d fall. We looked at the floor, and there was some kind of dark liquid by the cell door. The old man got frightened.
I asked him, "What is it?" In the morning we heard noise in the corridor, prisoners kicking the doors of their cells and banging on them with their food bowls. "Boys, let's go, let's go, we don’t want to be seen here."
So we climbed up the stairs and entered the exercise yard. I held back the door and again asked the old man what had happened. “There’s an inmate in that cell, he says that he’s innocent and needs to see the prosecutor. He writes complaints all the time. Who cares? Doesn’t he know that there are plenty of innocent people in this prison. The prosecutor doesn’t want to see him. So he cut open his stomach today and dumped his intestines down the feeding flap." We were in complete shock. We asked, "And what next?" “What do you think?” says the old man, “They fixed his guts, and now he is in the prison medical unit, moaning. The fool. You won’t get any justice here.”
From Vitold Abankin’s short autobiographical sketch Ears in an Envelope: Things camps and prisons have seen! They were described by Solzhenitsyn, Shalamov, Dyakov and many former political prisoners who went through each circle of hell of the Soviet penitentiary system. Eye-witnesses have told me about many blood-curdling cases of protests against the violence that takes place there. But what happened in the Vladimir Prison in 1975 goes far beyond what most people know…
Every day, at 6 a.m. the radio would be turned on and the guards would walk along the corridors and bang the feeding flaps with their keys, which meant everyone should rise. The prison would wake up, wash, attend to natural needs, and prepare for breakfast. And through the radio, the repulsive Soviet national anthem would be blasting out. The anthem was followed by a broadcast of an exercise routine, and then for the entire day the Soviet authorities would carry on praising themselves and cursing the capitalists.
Both criminals and political prisoners were long sick of this babble. We protested against the fact that it was impossible to turn off the radio in any given cell. There was only one switch, and the entire prison had to listen to the broadcasts.
The criminals would break the speakers, rip the metal grills from the niches above the doors where the speakers were located, and would plug the niches with jackets to drown out the sound. Of course, they always got punished for this: they’d be put in punishment cells, deprived of the opportunity to buy food in the prison shop, and disallowed correspondence for a month. But prisoners did not relent and did not want to listen to the Soviet radio for 16 hours a day. Not all prisoners, of course, but most.
We, political prisoners, would write complaints and even go on one-day hunger strikes in protest against the brainwashing that was being forced upon us. But everything was in vain, and we, following the example of the criminals, began to plug the radio niche with with our pea jackets. No, we listened to the radio — at least some programs, and the latest news. But often the radio interfered with our studies of foreign languages, with our reading, with writing complaints and protest statements, and with our discussions of current affairs. In general, having to listen to the radio — with volume turned up high — for 16 hours a day was a nightmare.
And then one day on a morning round, when the duty officer and his guards took over the shift from the previous shift, the inmates in one of the cells — who were persistent offenders (called “polosatye”) — handed a thick envelope to the duty officer, made from one of those paper bags the prison shop uses for wrapping cheap candy. The envelope was covered in brown spots. And addressed to Brezhnev.
Only later one of the guards, looking over his shoulder and whispering, told us what was inside that envelope: Human ears that have been cut off! They were sent to the Secretary-General of the Communist Party by one of the “polosatye” inmates. The enclosed letter said the following: “Here, you lowlife scum, have my ears. I’m tired of listening to your communist vomit on the radio — day in, day out. Give my ears to one of your lackeys, and let him listen to you with his four ears. “
The warden also added with a grin that when the duty officer opened the envelope, he got ill.
The entire prison was in a state of shock. The abnormal, sadistic measures of re-education also gave rise to inhuman, cruel forms of protest. Prisoners would swallow spoons, nails, barbed wire, would nail their genitals to bunks, hang themselves, cut their veins, suture their mouths, rip open their bellies and pour their intestines out into the corridor through the feeding flap, demanding to see the prosecutor. But hardly anyone paid attention to this. The convicts were beaten in retaliation, had their sentences extended, would get killed, and thrown into sweatbox cells. (A sweatbox cell, called “press-hata” are cells where convicts are being beaten and often killed by fellow inmates on prison authorities’ orders —AO).
Remembering the prison, places of detention, I can’t say for sure who was more criminal: prisoners or those who guarded and re-educated them.
Vitold Abankin: "This painting of mine , which also serves as a stage backdrop, is called 'Soviet sickle and hammer'. These implements were used to cut people's heads off and shut their mouths .
How can a person reach such a threshold of desperation?
Vitold Abankin: Don’t be too scared, those were “polosatye”. And they are stone-cold inside. After all, they have spent 15-20 years in prison, or sometimes even longer than that. With their entire lives spent behind bars, they have a distorted consciousness. Life — if you can call dozens of years in prison “life” — didn’t mean much to them, so they abused their bodies to spite their jailers and the Soviet regime.
Does prison make sense at all? Does it carry any educational purpose? After all, there are lawyers and philosophers who believe that prison cannot impart anything on a person except for harm.
Vitold Abankin: There are several types of people. Some may commit a crime (often out of stupidity) and it is enough to arrest this kind of person, put him in a cell, and then you can release him. All his life he will remember the cell and the miracle of being set free. And he will never break the law.
Another type of person will have his spirit broken while in prison and will turn into an animal. A third type of person will lay low, and will pretend to have finished with crime, but after getting released he will simply be more cunning. Yet another type of person will get used to prison and to captivity. Most people are able to adapt to anything.
Once I’ve spent three months in a solitary cell in Vladimir. Those were the best months of my life.
Vitold Abankin: Are you shocked? No one bothers you, you get to think over many things, your memory starts working very well, you get your creativity running. I wrote. They took away everything. And then the KGB officer came from Moscow. “A 12-year term is not enough for you, Abankin? Well, we are generous people — when inmates ask us for something, we give."
In the first part of my interview to you, I described how my fellow inmate Tikhonov was murdered in prison. I told the KGB man that I was prepared to stay in prison for yet another 15 years, but only if he found at least one tiny lie in my notes. “And so,” I said, “go ahead, extend my sentence. But first buy wheat from the USA, otherwise they will impose an embargo on your because of me, and the starving people will eat you.” At the time there was a scandal in the news around this wheat issue — American trade unions were refusing to load Soviet vessels. I have managed to pass information to the outside about this visit by the KGB and about their threats, and Andrei Dmitrievich Sakharov took some steps. I have not seen this KGB man anymore.
There is a movie called The Chess Gambit. It’s about an intellectual who got captured by the Germans, and they didn’t know how to break him. And one Gestapo man said that he should not be given anything to read. And this man started to lose his awareness, but... one day managed to steal a chess teaching manual from a German. So he learned all the moves and then beat a world champion.
Criminals have it easier in prison: they have their fights, their drugs, their moonshine, their schemes on how to detect a snitch… Their lives are easier. In prison they plan new crimes, keep in touch with the outside, recruit cops and so on. But it’s hard to be a thinking man in prison. So when I found myself alone, I made my best intellectual effort — something that is not attainable when you’re a free man at home.
In the solitary cell I would do my physical exercises in the morning, eat, and then I would write, think, and have no distractions. They would offer to take me for a walk, but I would not go. My cell was clean — floors wiped, my window open, the air — fresh. I would write, write, write. Then lunch. Then again I would write and think. Then dinner. And again I would write and think. No one was distracting me. At home or in a labor camp such things are impossible.
The idea of prison can be intimidating to most people, especially in countries like the USSR or Russia. I once visited a prison in Germany. I asked, and they took me to a functioning prison. I was shocked. Inmates are being baby-sat there. An inmate realizes what his country needs him. Inmates are sitting in their cells, and their doors are open. There are classes where they can be taught anything, if they want. And they do learn — after all, once they get released, they’d have to support themselves.
On each floor there is a female psychologist, because a man, especially a criminal, finds it easier to open up to a woman. Once a prisoner gets released, he is being supported by social services for two years, which helps him re-adapt to society. And social services have no right to disclose that this man is a former prisoner. If you have no violations, they let go home for the weekend. And the food they get is exceptional! Cells have TV sets and normal bedding. So in essence it’s not a cell but a room. Windows have no bars. There are no watchtowers, no barbed wire.
When I returned from Germany, I relayed all of this to the Central Office of the Federal Penitentiary Service (GUFSIN). And wrote recommendations for them. But... we live in Russia, and the German way is not the Russian way. In Germany the recidivism rate is 1.5% and in Russia it’s 70%. So here is your answer. A German might threaten you with a knife when taking your wallet, and that’s it. But a Russian will take your wallet and then stab you. What for? Because of the bitterness and anger of everyone at everyone.
Mind you, people are angry not at the authorities that make their lives miserable, but at each other, as if those around them are to blame for their wretched lives. I talk about it in my book Horrid Stories. There you can read how I told Boris Yeltsin about what was going on in the camps. Then improvements began shortly after that. I proposed my plan to him and it worked. I told a group of prisoners later, when I became a member of the Public Council at our regional GUFSIN to thank Yeltsin for that.
In Germany you not only listened to what the Germans told you, but also told them about your life and your experiences.
Vitold Abankin: On this photograph you can see me talking to German students in the courtyard of the prison in Potsdam.
From an article about Vitold Abankin in a German newspaper:
“Fight for your civil rights and don't do anything stupid that can cost you dearly.” This is Vitold Abankin's message to young people. Abankin says that faith in God and hope that good will prevail over evil have given him strength to survive his time in prison. And somehow, as absurd as it sounds, detention also had its good side. He got to know many good people, famous artists, poets, some of whom have spent almost their entire lives in prisons and labor camps. Abankin visits prisons and camps today, and works on poetry publications. He recently founded a band called "Article 58" in his home town of Rostov-on-Don.”
And these photographs were taken in Magdeburg in 2000. This is the building of the prosecutor’s office where my trial took place. I was at the opening of the prison museum in Potsdam. This is where I was first taken after the border patrol seized me. Years later I was invited to an exhibition in Magdeburg, where documents on political cases against the Germans and against the Soviet soldiers were being presented. These photos were taken inside the building and outside.
Are you staying in touch with the Germans?
Vitold Abankin: I have received a letter from my translator Natasha in Germany. She writes that they are planning to hold a presentation of my military identity card at the museum and asked if that card was with me during my escape attempt and when I managed to get it back. I replied that if you are military, you always have your ID card in your pocket. It’s like your passport. They gave it back to me upon my release, and later I gave it to the museum.
What, in your opinion, is the main difference in the authorities' approach of the prison system in Russia and in the West?
Vitold Abankin: In Europe and in America prisoners are treated in accordance with the teaching of Christ. Turn the other cheek. That is, if a person has committed a crime, the state will not create terrible conditions for him, as it was in the GULAG, but offer him humane conditions. Violence and cruelty intimidate and break people and turn people into animals, and a person who is treated that way will hate the state and will bite its hand at any moment. This is the reason why the Soviets surrendered to the Germans by the thousands.
Violence and cruelty negate human conscience, and a person begins to respond with the same kind of violence. In my book Horrid Stories I talk about this. When a KGB man came from Moscow to see me in prison in order to intimidate me and try to scare me with a new prison term, I told him how on December 10, 1974 (the Human Rights Day), prison guards killed an inmate. He was being taken to see a doctor and was walking along the prison corridor when he saw the prison nurse walking towards him — the wife of some sort of warden... And this inmate grabbed her by her soft spot.
The cops led him into an empty cell and began to beat him with wooden hammers which had long handles. With these hammers — when convicts are taken out for a walk — they knock on bars and walls. If a grill rattles, then this means that it is filed. And if a wall has a hole in it which is papered over with a piece paper and painted to match the color of the wall, then this hammer will break through the hole. To make a long story short, they have beaten this inmate to death. But while he was still alive and lay there dying, the nurse entered the cell. She stood above him so that his body was between her legs. She lifted up her skirt and said, gloating, “Is this what you wanted? You can have it now!" The cops are sadists, they are animals. But what kind of creature was that nurse?
So this KGB man immediately petered out and began to pry whether I knew the name of the nurse and the guards. I told him I didn’t, but was bound to receive this information sooner or later. Yes, that inmate was a fool. Criminals are generally uninhibited, shall we say. But to kill for this sort of thing! I would give him a kick, that’s all.
A guard told a story once how the inmates in the labor camp for criminals kept syringes wrapped in dirty rags somewhere under a stone. They would catch a cat, take blood from it with a rusty needle and then inject themselves. The rejection reaction would then begin. The inmate would fall to the ground and writhe, convulsing, foam coming out of his mouth. Then he would get quiet and lie there, as if dead. But then he would get up. Stagger about and say, "Wow, I got such a kick out of it!" And carry on as usual. I wish I could ask some scientist a question: Where does this sort of behavior come from?
Inhumane conditions in labor camps give rise to the same kind of inhumane ways of resisting them. Which means that convicts use evil to fight evil. And there will never be an end to this. This is the reason why Christ said what he said about turning the other cheek. I don’t know who would raise his hand to strike again if a person turns the other cheek. And everyone has a conscience. I may be dull, or crushed by cruelty and injustice, but it is there. And only kindness can awaken it. In tsarist Russia murderers were pitied and prayed for. It was believed that they were destined to go to eternal hell, that they were on Satan’s side, and therefore would not be granted Resurrection. I write about all of this in my book.
How do you think Bukovsky had managed to get along with the criminals during his first term?
Vitold Abankin: Yes, he was in the labor camp for criminals having been sentenced under article 190 of the Criminal Code (“active participation in group activity disrupting the public order” —AO). And there he taught criminals how to play preferance, a card game where you have to count. I haven’t held cards in my hands in my entire life and I don’t understand anything about them, and thank God. So they adored him for that. He won the game, and they got rather displeased. Winning in a card game when playing with criminals is not easy. Criminals are obsessed with cards. But he taught them how to play this game.
There was an attempt on his life in the camp, as he told me. A man attacked him with a stool. Vovka dodged the stool, but didn’t escape the blow entirely. Then code-bound criminals ran in, broke the bones of that guy, and assigned one person to guard Vovka. Then it turned out that earlier a KGB man had visited the camp and spoke for a long time with the field officers. When the main crime lord of the camp was being transferred to another camp, just before being taken away, he told everyone regarding Bukovsky: "Take care of him. We are each doing time for our own stuff, but he is doing time for the sake of us all." And Vovka served his term OK.
You also tried to take care of him in the Vladimir Prison, didn’t you? For example, the way you tried to make sure that he didn’t smoke that much.
Vitold Abankin: Vovka called me a sadist when I would dump his strong tobacco down the toilet. I would dump it in the toilet, and he would get angry. I used to tell him, "Vova, the KGB wants to see you dead, the quicker, the better. But you won’t receive poison from me." Vovka was a terribly heavy smoker, and the other three of us in the cell were non-smokers. I told him, "Vova, you are a democrat, and so are we. Can you stick your little ciggies in your ears or up your nose, but make it so that we don’t have to breathe in your smoke? There’s a window, smoke there." And he would hang by the window bars all the time and smoke. One day a guard opened the feeding flap and asked what he was doing there. I replied that he is trying to burn through the iron bars with his cigarette. The cop laughed until he nearly dropped to the floor.
In the first part of this interview you told a story of how you have made a birthday cake for Bukovsky in 1975 out of improvised ingredients. What other gifts would prisoners give each other?
Vitold Abankin: We had a fellow inmate in Vladimir by the name of Gunnar Rode, a Latvian. He hated communists with a passion. And then his birthday came. We all had presents for him. One guy gave him a pen, another guy gave him a notebook, the third guy gave him a book. And I have made a hand grenade out of bread clay and painted it — when it got dry — with black ink from a ballpoint pen. Then I attached an imitation lug to it which I have made out of a plastic pen and a lever made out of a bent spoon. When it sat on our table it looked exactly like a real grenade. I didn’t go for walks for two days while I was making it. So I put it in an envelope and handed it to Gunnar. What followed was pure joy! He was almost kissing it. He was jumping around the cell holding it and even slept with it.
Then I told him that we needed to get rid of the grenade. There would be a search, they would find it, and we would end up in a punishment cell. He agreed, with regret. So I threw the grenade out of the feeding flap when a guard was opening it. The grenade rolled across the floor, making a tumbling sound. It was that solid. Food service inmates scattered in fear, and all neighboring cells got a fright. Then the KGB man Obrubov and the field officers started running around the cells trying to find out whose grenade it was. And Vovka said, when I handed it to Gunnar, “This is quite something! How did the Bolsheviks allow such criminal talent slip through their fingers?”
Prisoners are known for their various handicraft skills.
Vitold Abankin: We constantly wrote complaints about what was happening in our prison, as there were a lot of violations there. Information was being given to us by the inmates who were serving time for criminal offenses. Even the guards would ask us for help when suddenly faced with injustices on the outside. And we would write complaints for them too. But the field officers and the KGB men were fed up with this and once we were told — when we ordered paper and envelopes — that none of this was in stock in the prison shop.
So I suggested we make our own envelopes and use wheat paste as a glue, and use white paper strips torn from the margins to write the addresses and to write the complaints. An inmate whose last name was Vudka had over one thousand stamps. Vovka (Vladimir Bukovsky — AO) thought my idea was great and told me I had an inventive mind.
We got down to business. Glued envelopes, cut out white paper stripes with a sharpened spoon, inscribed addresses, and wrote complaints. And in the morning our cell — there were four people in it — handed 50 envelopes to the duty officer. The officer and the cops had their eyes out on stalks. And in an hour we were given proper envelopes, paper, and our complaints were brought back to us too. They were asking us not to send them. We refused.
Many cops used to say, “These are the people who could not be broken in the camps, so they brought them here. And what are we going to do with them? Our wives and daughters are forced to write accompanying notes to their complaints, and there are so many of them that their hands are numb from constantly holding the pens. If we could have it our way, we’d send all these guys abroad.”
How severe were the customs in labor camps for criminal offenders?
Vitold Abankin: In camps for criminals, convicts punished fellow inmates very severely for transgressions. In a neighboring camp, a cook managed to gamble away the meat he was supposed to feed the convicts with. At that time, according to the rules, a convict was supposed to receive 15 grams of meat per day, and it was meat of “the tenth grade,” that is, skin, tails, guts... So the convicts come for lunch, and the cook greets them with an apology, saying that he had gambled away the meat in a game of cards. They pushed him into a cauldron which was full of water, closed the lid, and turned on the gas. The kitchen door was backed with a bench. The guards found out, knocked out the frame, flew into the kitchen and freed the cook. Since then, he was afraid to hold cards in his hands.
One day a criminal convict appeared in our labor camp. He had done something wrong in his camp for criminals, and in order to save his skin, he wrote a couple of political leaflets and glued them to the door of the camp’s head office. He was then convicted under article 70 of the Penal Code (“anti-soviet agitation and propaganda” — AO) and transferred to our camp. He could not understand where he was at first. There were no knives, no fights, no one used obscenities, and everyone was discussing matters he could not grasp. The convicts walked around with books, many spoke English. No one threatened him. For about a month he would walk around and marvel at things.
And then one day an inspection arrived from the Directorate. The visiting group included the camp governor Major Kotov, deputy head of the regime, field officers, and inspectors. And it so happened that exactly at that time this felon was scurrying along a footpath with his sooty mug in which he’d brewed some chifir (very strong tea — AO). Kotov, to show his authority, says to him, "Convict, why aren’t you saying hello?" And this prisoner throws his mug on the ground, the tea spills, falls to his knees, crawls to Kotov, wraps his arms around his boots and cries, “Forgive me, nobleman! Do forgive this lackey of yours! This won’t happen again!” Kotov’s shock, the inspectors are turning around and running out of the camp. We were all stunned too. Wow! We gathered some tea and gave it to this man.
This is a fine example of deliberate escalation of a confrontation to the level of the absurd. I like the way this prisoner demonstrated the gap between the ideals which were being officially declared in the USSR and their exact opposite, which reigned everywhere in the country. Many prisoners, it seems to me, can put anyone in place, even the most sophisticated polemicist, not just a prison guard. And, of course, it’s hard to forget how an investigator in the KGB prison in Potsdam threatened you with capital punishment and asked, “Do you wish to stay alive?” And you answered, "It depends on what you call life.”
Vitold Abankin: I was once sitting on the floor in a punishment cell, as the bunks aren’t available there during the day. Kotov enters and says, “Why aren’t you saying hello, Abankin?” I replied that, according to social norms, the person who enters a room is supposed to greet those who are already there. He said, “I am entering a room which belongs to me. This is my camp and my punishment cell. And there is such thing as law. So social norms do not apply here”. “Since social norms do not apply, — I said, — I will be frank with you. You are a cop, and I'm a prisoner. Can a prisoner who is in his right mind wish a cop to be in good health? This is unnatural. From now on I will be greeting you with the words ‘Drop dead.’ ” (In the Russian language the word “Hello” (“Zdravstvuite”) literally means “Be well” —AO). He added another 15 days to my time in the punishment cell.
A still from music video produced by Vitold Abankin's group Article 58.
Vitold Andreyevich, Is there a funny episode from camp life you’d perhaps like to share?
Vitold Abankin: Here are a couple of gags. One political prisoner had the following written in his trial verdict: “During the trial he maliciously kept silent and smiled in an anti-Soviet way.”
Captain Zhuravkov wrote a report on my fellow inmate Alexei Safronov, which, among other things, said, "... inmate Safronov kept looking at me for a long time and viciously so." The KGB laughed at this when they read it out to Alexei.
Major Fedorov, the moron of labor camp no. 36, once uttered during an argument with a convict: "Why are you shouting at me in a historical (sic) voice? Who am I to you?!”
The cops always wanted to break the political prisoners in any way they could. So they came up with an idea of a so-called Council of Internal Order, which meant that prisoners were supposed to walk around the camp wearing red bandages with this inscription, like militia, and monitor things, making sure everything was in order. We weren’t criminals, we had no fights, no scandals or anything like that. But this was designed to break all convicts. Also, prisoners were supposed to participate in public life, that is, to issue a newspaper, to grass on each other, to participate in amateur performances.
In 1967, on November 7 (the anniversary of the revolution — AO) cops, together with former policemen who were called fascists during the war for serving the Germans, put up a concert. Long benches were put on stage. In the third row there stood those who were tall, in the second row those who were slightly shorter, and in the first row the prisoners stood on the floor, forming an amphitheater of sorts. In the audience there were prison guards with their wives, KGB men, civilian employees, and political prisoners who sat at the very back. Andrei Sinyavsky did not come to this show.
And so imagine, here they are — former Polizei men who have now “embarked on the path of correction” and who used to always tell us, younger prisoners, to follow their example, standing there singing the song titled Lenin Lives On. We were in shock. And then one former Polizei man, who stood in the third row, at the far end of the high bench, suddenly dropped his denture out of his mouth, which fell to the floor. He jumps off the bench, picks up his denture, puts it back in his mouth, jumps back onto the bench and continues to sing. The convicts in the audience laughed so hard they were practically crawling on the floor. The cops laughed too, and so did the KGB men. And the wives were crying with laughter. But the most important thing was not the dropped denture, but the kind of people who were singing this song about Lenin. Sinyavsky regretted not seeing this concert. This was something one can’t ever see anywhere else in the world — a choir of fascists singing about Lenin.
It is amazing that in confinement you crossed paths with entire layers of Russian history, living participants of key historical events.
Vitold Abankin: According to the verdict of the court, all the defendants in the court case of Minister Abakumov were to be shot. (Viktor Abakumov was a high-level Soviet security official who was tried for fabricating a series of criminal cases in the late 1940s–early 1950s in order to accuse a number of prominent politicians of treason — AO). But this was how the newspapers reported it. In actuality Chernov became a convict in the camp for political prisoners no. 11 where he served as a head of the warehouse which stored prisoner’s belongings. Broverman served as the head of the finished goods warehouse. Libenson worked as an accountant. They have all received 25-year sentences.
Sometimes officials dressed in civilian clothes would come from Moscow to see Broverman, and he would sit with them in the main office of the labor camp until two or three in the morning. The office would get surrounded by cops so that no one would be able to overhear the conversation. Broverman would then come out slightly tipsy and bring with him a bag of sausage, chocolate, butter, and sweets. He probably shared some of his know-how with those security officers from Moscow. Or maybe he shared compromising materials on some of the senior officials.
Broverman was the head of the NKVD (secret police, predecessor of KGB — AO) investigation department in Leningrad, where people were being tortured and killed. In 1967, on the 50th anniversary of the revolution, Broverman told all of us young people that if we behaved well, we’d be released. He suggested "helping" the administration, which meant grassing.
In criminal camps, information was also disseminated about an upcoming large-scale amnesty. Prisoners began to work harder and did not violate the discipline. And then comes November the 7th. No one got pardoned or released. To tell the truth, we did not believe those promises. But the criminals did. In one women’s labor camp out of more than a thousand convicts, only 14 people got released, so the female convicts started rioting and refused to go to work... It took a week to settle this matter. And it was like that across all labor camps. Prisoners quit working because they had been so brazenly deceived.
In the camps you probably got acquainted also with those who fought alongside Bandera? (Stepan Bandera was an ideologue of the Ukrainian nationalist movement who led Ukrainian resistance both against the communists and the nazis. — AO).
Vitold Abankin: In camp no. 11, I became rather well-known on my very first day there. The former Bandera fighters invited me over, and brewed tea in a black, sooty mug, covered with a burnt work glove. There were sandwiches with lard and cheap candy. They asked me questions, passed around this mug in a circle. I tried that strong tea of theirs and it tasted terribly bitter. It wouldn’t go down my throat. They laughed, diluted the tea for me in a separate half-liter glass jar, and then I could drink it. They began to recall various stories from their camp life, and their attention to me gradually waned. I took the mug and left. Behind the barracks I rubbed it to a shine with some sand, washed it, and returned it to the guys.
You should have seen their faces. They were stunned when I put the shining mug back on their table. They were speechless. “What have you done? Why did you clean the mug?!” cried one of them. “We’ve been brewing tea in this mug for 15 years, and you... Now the tea will taste like aluminum. What have you done? You're worse than the KGB.” And everyone began to laugh. And when they calmed down, one of them said that now they would have to start borrowing a brewing mug either from the religious convicts or from “the forest brothers” (Baltic guerrilla fighters who waged a warfare against the Soviet invasion and occupation of the three Baltic States and during the WWII — AO).
And since people would point their fingers at me in the camp and say, "This is that newbie, Abankin, who wrong-footed the Bandera men, who cleaned their mug." Even the guards laughed and teased me. I grew up with a sailor father in perfect cleanliness, which he taught me. Every day I cleaned the floors, everything shone and sparkled in our house, like in a submarine or on a ship. And when I saw that terrible black mug, my reflex got triggered. Later I realized that those convicts were right. Aluminum gives off its faint smell to tea, coffee, water, and spoils the taste. I even read about it on several occasions. So that's how I became famous right away.
From Vitold Abankin’s short story Let Me Tell You About...:
Let me tell you about Petro Grigoryevich Opanasenko. I met him in the winter of 1967 at labor camp number 11 in Mordovia, in the village of Yavass. At the time he was already considered a veteran camp convict and was an elderly man. Under the window of his barrack, a flower patch was blooming, and between the flowers there grew parsley, dill, and salad.
No, the flowers weren’t there to serve as a disguise for anything. He loved them with all his heart, looked after them, would sit and admire them, and his face would soften, his eyes, already warm, would shine with childish joy. From parsley, dill and salad, he would make a paste-like substance and hand it out to convicts in the camp canteen as seasoning for cabbage soup. And immediately the camp soup would turn into something tasty. When a convict had his birthday — whether he was a criminal or a political convict — Petro Grigoryevich would discreetly put several flowers near the birthday boy.
But a convict in a labor camp is meant to toil and suffer. A prisoner shouldn’t smile, shouldn’t sing songs, but should moan and weep. Such is the essence of the Soviet correctional labor system, which cannot be called anything else but inhumane.
One morning, we saw Petro Grigorievich’s flowers lying around, crushed by cops’ boots. Flowers, as well as dill, parsley and lettuce, lay there broken, crumpled and dirty, in their destroyed beds. I did not see his tears, but his eyes went out, darkened, and there was no more light or warmth to them. A fire of hatred and revenge blazed through my chest. I took things close to heart, and reacted to all injustice emotionally, no matter who had been wronged, and was now ready to retaliate.
Next to the work area there were greenhouses surrounded by a fence, and this is where convicts who cooperated with the administration — mostly those who served as nazi policemen during the occupation — were growing vegetables for the bosses. Seizing the moment when no one saw me, I went behind the canteen building. Big, heavy rail nuts lay in my pockets. I don’t know how many greenhouse glass panes I broke, but there was a lot of noise and talk about it afterwards. Vegetables and flowers were all destroyed.
“That’s it, Petro Grigorievich, I got back at them for your flowers.”
“You are so hot-headed. Do you think this was the right thing to do?! Plants are not to blame. And the guards — they are fools, and the problem is not them.”
“But we must punish them!” I fumed, still feeling somewhere deep down that I wasn’t completely right in what I’ve done.
“Well, they’ve already punished themselves. Trampling on flowers is not a thing that one can simply do and forget about it. And as for you, do not be so bitter, otherwise the bitterness will burn you from the inside.”
At the time I got a little offended by this, and only later, after years have passed, did I understand how right the old prisoner was. Even now, conscience torments me when I think of those greenhouses. Petro Grigorievich taught me a good lesson.
Again he took up his flowers. I helped him, and other prisoners carried water and pulled out the weeds. The gaze of the old Ukrainian got warm again. As for the guards, they would walk quickly by and squint at his plants maliciously, but did not touch the flower beds anymore.
Petro Grigorievich was doing time for defending the freedom of his people. He was seized in town while on a mission. They tortured, beat, and abused him, demanded that he betray his fellow fighters, but he wasn’t of that kind — he told them nothing.
Instead he took the KGB to a hiding place, which had not been in use for a long time, but did not say that the hiding place had a secret exit. He lifted the lid of a disguised hatch, started crawling in, and the KGB men followed. Then Petro Grigoryevich squirreled through the secret exit hole and was gone. The KGB men got so angry, they started screaming and firing their guns across the forest, but finally had to leave, empty-handed.
For a long time this brave Ukrainian would be giving them the go-around. But then he got arrested again. He and his friend. Again — torture and beatings. In Stalin’s camps they would try to break Ukrainians morally and physically. The friend of Petro Grigoryevich could not stand the abuse and hanged himself. Opanasenko was now alone.
Labor camp no. 11 underwent restructuring, and several smaller camps were created instead. Petro Grigorievich and I went out separate ways. But we met again in camp no. 36, in the Perm region, in the village of Chusovoy. Almost four years have passed. The old Ukrainian turned gray, his back was now hunched, and one could tell he was getting on. But he remained a gentle and kind person. And again he planted flowers in the camp, and among them — dill, parsley, salad. And what is more, Opanasenko now took up medical activities — he now planted medicinal herbs. Where he got the seeds, only God knows.
“I, Abankin, am a KGB man first, and a doctor second. And I do indeed care who I render my medical services to. Take you, for example. You are against the Soviet government, yet you have come to me,” the head of our medical unit at camp number 36, Doctor Petrov, would say. So Petro Opanasenko began to treat his fellow prisoners. At the time, as I remember, many suffered from fungus. He burned some birch logs to make tar and made an ointment out of it, following his own recipe. He would distribute it to people explaining how to use it. It helped everyone.
Sitting next to him, listening to his voice, to his Ukrainian words, I felt at home, and also something native to me and dear emanating from him. I would suddenly recall how I used to visit farms in my early childhood near Likha in the Rostov Region, which in the spring time drowned in the gentle haze of blossoming apple trees, while I was listening to the soft accent of Petro Grigoryevich, identical to the one that people had there.
In camp number 36 a strike broke out. An officer had hit a Ukrainian convict, and we demanded that he be tried in a court of law. Forty-five people were sent to the Vladimir Prison for this, for three years each. Again mine and Opanasenko’s paths diverged.
Three years have passed in prison amidst hunger strikes, protests, complaints, statements, and time in punishment cells. We used all the energy we had to fight for human rights and against the arbitrariness of the administration. And then I found myself in camp number 36 again. I had ten months left until the end of my 12-year term. They brought us to the camp, searched us, and let us in. Friends met me with a blunt piece of news: "Petro Opanasenko has died, hanged himself, could not stand the confinement any longer, he was old, he was sick ..." The news hit me like a heavy blow across the head. I have seen so many prisoners die in my lifetime, but this death, like the death of Yuri Galanskov, pierced my heart with pain. Everything that I’ve known about Petro Grigoryevich suddenly flashed across my mind, and let me tell you, I’ve never known another man like him.
Have you ever met any political prisoners from Central Asia?
Vitold Abankin: I have met several Uzbek resistance fighters. Those were fine fellas! The communists came to their village peacefully initially, with a red flag. And started promising the people mountains of gold, and asked them if they wanted to join the collective farm. But these people already had their sheep and their land, no one suffered from poverty, they lived well, the way they had lived for centuries. So they refused. And early in the morning the reds attacked them, began to set houses on fire, to chop, to shoot. This is how the bloody communist regime was being established. Immediately everyone became destitute. "Well, how do you feel about joining the collective farm now?" they asked them with an evil grin. And these guys fled, then met the same guys as them, and started killing the reds. Was it their fault? Their relatives have been murdered, their livelihood has been ruined. People who have done this to them were fascists!
So, one day I’m sitting in a punishment cell, and the guard is a young Uzbek. After he got discharged from his compulsory two years in the army, he was called up to the draft board again and offered secret type of work. They promised to give him his own apartment and a good salary. And hinted that he would be working at a place where rare few get an opportunity to work, and that he’d be proud of his job. The guy thought they meant a space launch facility. So they brought him to the labor camp and put him up on a watchtower. He began to protest, but he’d already signed the papers. Then they made him a warden. This guy was into athletics and knew that I was into weightlifting. This was in labor camp no. 36. So I would tell him about the Uzbeks I’d met while in confinement and how the communist gangs used to install Soviet power in Uzbekistan.
I wanted him to start helping us, to start forwarding information to the outside. I told him that when he gets back home, he’d be forced to keep his labor camp past a secret. So I would sit there alone in my punishment cell, and he would be there alone too. I would spend hours chatting to him. I’d tell him about Novocherkassk, about Sakharov, about Solzhenitsyn, about what the Soviets did in Hungary, in Czechoslovakia, in East Germany...
And then this guy disappeared. Later the guards told me that he went to his commander, ripped off his shoulder straps and said that he was not going to continue to serve, and that honest people were doing time in this camp who were put there for telling the truth. He was sent to the court of honor, and he said such things there that he was immediately taken to Uzbekistan. It’s a pity that I don't remember his last name, but he was the only Uzbek there.
Bukovsky wrote in one of his books that the most stubborn convicts from all over the country were gathered in Vladimir Prison. It is clear that none of these people were ordinary, but were there any very unusual prisoners?
Vitold Abankin: The old wardens once told us that there was an old man in the Vladimir Prison whose identification was a number, not a name. It was forbidden to talk to him, and he was in solitary. Then he was taken away. But still the guards managed to learn something about him. He was a wood ranger in the Katyn Forest. And he saw who shot the Polish officers. He understood that he was a witness, and therefore fled to Yugoslavia. But in the USSR he had a daughter. After the war he wrote her a letter. That's how he ended up in the Vladimir Prison. When the topic of the execution of the Polish officers was finally publicly raised, I wrote a letter to the prosecutor's office in Moscow. I was then summoned to the military prosecutor's office in Rostov, and I told what I knew to the investigators. I have also recently written to the Polish Embassy, but received no reply.
Vitold Andreyevich, how did everything go for you after your release? How were you adapting to the outside world after twelve years in prison?
Vitold Abankin: I was released on August 4, 1978, and on the 5th I took a train to travel to Moscow, to see Andrei Dmitrievich Sakharov. I described this in the first part of this interview. When they forcibly returned me to Rostov, after a couple of days my feet began to swell up and redden. They turned crimson, and that color went right up to my knees. My ankles were swollen, so that I couldn’t wear socks or shoes. This amazed me. I felt no pain, but I couldn’t go anywhere.
At the time I lived with my half-sister, who had already signed a cooperation agreement with the KGB. They frightened her, saying that they would make her son’s life difficult, since he was the nephew of the enemy of the people. And my foolish half-sister said nothing to me about this. While actually I could have guessed it all myself, if I weren’t such a donkey. I knew some “clean” addresses and phone numbers in Moscow, where I would send letters and occasionally call. I kept them hidden in different places across the house. Some she found, or maybe they were discovered during secret searches while none of us were at home. But searches took place in Moscow and there were complaints against me. I explained myself and shared how things were with my sister. I had an argument with her, moved out, and began to rent my own apartment. Later I wanted to record her confessions on camera, but she was already dead.
So, with these strange legs of mine I took a taxi to hospital no. 7, barefoot. There, doctors couldn’t figure out what was wrong with me. They asked me where I worked, and I told them that I had just been released and so on. And one doctor, an older man, said that what happened was a sudden switch to a normal diet which now included an abundance of fruit, and that this was the reaction of my body to vitamins. The thing was that I’ve not eaten any apples, or strawberries, or raspberries, or pears, or grapes, or eggs, or fresh vegetables and so forth for 12 years.
So I was admitted to this hospital and stayed there for a month. This doctor told me to eat hospital food only. This kind of food is worse than what people eat at home, but is better than prison food. And this was supposed to ease the transition. It was my own fault — after getting released I began to gorge on grapes, apricots and so on. To cut a long story short, after a week the swelling subsided and redness disappeared. My body began to get back to normal.
A sporty-looking guy appeared one day in our ward. He wasn’t being given any tests, the doctors weren’t paying any attention to him, and he would follow me around trying to become friends with me. And I had bought a good radio receiver known as “Okean” and would listen to the Voice of America. I would also exercise in the park, walk on my arms, and do push-ups. He was always with me. I immediately realized that this was a KGB man. But I didn’t let it show. He cursed the Soviet regime, talked about the camps, and described who served time for what.
Then I got discharged from hospital, and our local policeman came to my house and told me to get a job. So I went to the electric goods manufacturing facility called “Electric Instruments” which was located near where I lived. And people in the personnel department began asking me about my work history and why haven’t I been working anywhere for so many years. Well, I began to tell them how I got my prison term, who were my fellow inmates, about the inmates who still remain in prisons and camps, and about the Novocherkassk massacre. A dozen or so people came up to me to hear my stories. They were listening, horrified. Then they told me to come back the next day to complete the hiring process.
And in the morning, Lieutenant Colonel K. N. Khokhulnikov came to my house and said that if I continued to answer job interview questions in this manner, I’d be returned to the labor camp. To which I replied that I had never signed any non-disclosure agreements. And what was I supposed to be saying to people at personnel departments? That I have spent all those years on the Moon? Or was in a coma?
So, long story short, the KGB man promised to get me a job. And he arranged for Auntie Olga to hire me as a loader at the furniture factory warehouse. And I grew up with her son and often ate at their house. Victor Bykodorov's father was a fisherman and specialized in carp and catfish. They had fish every day. Auntie Olga took care of me as if I were a street child, always gave me a better piece than to her son Vit'ka. She used to say that a life without a mother was not proper life. She was a compassionate woman.
As soon as I started working for her, a guy one day comes in, wearing a denim suit. At the time denim suits were very rare and very expensive. I was seeing him for the first time in my life, and he immediately suggested he and I flee the country. He said he was paying a pilot three thousand rubles for teaching him how to fly airplanes, and that his plan was for him and I to highjack an empty plane and fly it to Turkey. He boasted that he had 12 thousand rubles and that money was not a problem. I replied that I was waiting for a letter of invitation from abroad to be able to leave the country legally. That an empty plane would be shot down and no one would care. That I had a proper exit route, a proper door open for me and was not planning to climb through the window. He confidently answered that the authorities would never let me out of the country.
And then he began telling me things that made my jaw drop. Things that included the story about the tunnel I was digging in the labor camp trying to escape, and about the flyers I was distributing, and about the UN flag, and my weightlifting. I demanded to know how he knew such things about me. Even many convicts do not know all of this about me. He said that he could not tell me who his source was. But he added that I was incorrigible and therefore the authorities would never let me out of the country. I told him that if his plan failed, I’d end up receiving a death sentence, and at the same time he wouldn’t tell me the entire truth. So I told him to go get stuffed, and he left.
I immediately relayed all of this to Ivan Kovalev, the son of Sergei Adamovich Kovalev, who lived in Moscow, and asked him to find out who this could be. I described this Oleg to him, that was the name of this guy. After a couple of days Ivan told me that this was a KGB trap, and that I urgently needed to go to the KGB and write a statement demanding that they stop their provocations against me. But I decided not to rush things and see what the KGB would try to do next. Time passed and nothing happened, so I calmed down. I thought that perhaps some idiot found out about me from someone else and decided to escape abroad with me, using me as a protection of sorts.
And then on December 10, on the International Human Rights Day, he comes to me again. He is dressed expensively and is acting confidently. And again he talks about the escape. I immediately refused to speak to him. But he began to threaten me, saying that I would regret it if I didn’t join him on his highjacking plan. Well, at that point I could not restrain myself any longer and jumped at him. He shamefully fled. I came home and wrote a statement to the KGB and to the prosecutor's office demanding to stop the provocations. And I told Ivan about it. He told me to be careful and warned me that they could send over some drunk who would try to instigate a fight with me, or a girl… in those times their methods did not include narcotics.
Time passed, and... nothing. They did not call me, as if I have never written my statement. And then, in mid-February, K. N. Khokhulnikov came to me (he died two years ago) with a ticket to Alma-Ata. Why? What is going on? No one tells me anything. I thought that perhaps they were going to exchange me for someone or take me to the West. But why Kazakhstan?
So I arrive in Alma-Ata. I am met there by the local KGB men and Khokhulnikov is with them. They brought me to a hotel, gave me money, told me that this was my per diem, and left. I’m sitting in my room not understanding anything. I went out for a walk, ate in the canteen and returned back to my room. Three times I noticed the same little man near me. Which meant they were keeping an eye on me.
In the morning they knocked on my door. I opened it. The little man stood there telling me to get ready and go out. They put me in a car and drove me... to the court. I entered the courtroom. And there I see this Oleg guy. My jaw dropped. Immediately thought that he got in trouble with the law because of me. I wanted to say that I didn’t know him, but suddenly heard him yell, “What kind of political prisoner are you?! You have served such a long term, but couldn’t understand that I was the same as you? We would have flown away so easily! And now I’ll be given a jail term!” Of course, I was shocked.
I came up to him and said, "If a stranger approaches you in the street and offers you to rob a cash register, will you go with him?” And he stalled. What a complete idiot. The name is Oleg Mikhailov. According to his fellow convicts, he used to be a grass in the labor camp and used to beat his fellow convicts. And there was no one there to set him straight. After he got released he left for the USA and then went to Germany. And he had a lot of bad things to say, but not about me, but about Sergei Kovalev and his son, since he believed that they were to blame for his arrest. Someone in Moscow told him that Ivan had advised me to write that protest statement to the KGB.
It turned out that he was an illegal piecemeal trader who dealt in foreign clothes. He would bring clothes from Moscow to Rostov and to Kazakhstan. He had 12 thousand rubles. In Rostov — when selling jeans one day— he got to know a cop whose patch was the area where I lived. And so the cop told him everything about me. But later I and the guys in Moscow have nevertheless decided that this version of events wasn’t true. Later we found out that the pilot who was teaching him to fly, grassed him out. This pilot’s father was also a pilot and one day discovered his son’s stash of money. He pressed him, and the son told his father where the money came from. The father demanded he goes to the KGB. So this is how the KGB found out about this Oleg person. And then they remembered my statement.
At the time when I wrote it they assumed that I was provoking them, because they haven’t been sending anyone to talk to me. This was the understanding of the events I shared with the guys in Moscow. But something here isn’t right. At a later date I was told that he was a KGB provocateur, but in my case they have failed to achieve whatever it was they wanted to achieve, so they decided to put him in jail. After all, all illegal piecemeal traders who dealt in foreign clothes were operating with the KGB’s knowledge. So here you have this unpleasant story.
The most amazing thing about the KGB is their ability to adapt to all circumstances, to any changes taking place in society. And the fact that their agents stay afloat at all times — nothing seems to be able to sink them.
Vitold Abankin: After the Soviet government collapsed, I was one day walking down the street in Rostov. And saw the KGB man Khokhulnikov walking towards me.
“Vitold Andreyevich, hello!” And he shook my hand with his two hands servilely. “Finally it has happened!”
“What has happened?” I ask.
“What do you mean ‘what’? The Soviet government has collapsed!”
“But what do you have to do with any of it?”
“What do you mean? I have always been on your side, but I couldn’t risk my rank!”
How do you like it? What an extraordinary bunch of rascals! He used to threaten me with a new term and used to say that the Soviet government was forever, and that I would forever remain its eternal enemy, and that I would get another term in jail. He used to intimidate my wife when I was not at home, demanded that she grass on me, but she told me everything. I had to write about this to Attorney General and Khokhulnikov got in trouble at work for this. After that he went berserk and had me followed by his men. Apparently, they wanted to gather some kind of evidence on me.
Then I found out that he had been kicked out of the KGB. A power struggle began there, so they caught him drunk in the street as he was returning home from a friend’s birthday party. There was a big article about this in the Ogonyok magazine.
When the Cossacks started their “revival”, he became their leader. Cossacks from abroad would sent him money. He began to write tearful articles about the Cossacks, using materials gathered from the archives. You see, those archives contained stories which you can’t find anywhere else.
One day two Cossacks ran into me in the street and suggested I make a speech at their gathering. "I'm not going to sit at the same table with a KGB man,” I replied. They were stunned. They said that I was mistaken and that Khokhulnikov had never worked for the KGB. I replied that if I had slandered him, I would be prepared to go to the Theater Square, take off my trousers, and they would be welcome whip me while filming the proceedings on camera. I have never seen those Cossacks again.
Vitold Andreyevich, which poem of yours would you like to include to complete this interview?
Vitold Abankin: I wrote this poem a long time ago, in the labor camp no. 11. And signed it on top: "I. A. Krylov." (Ivan Andreyevich Krylov is Russia’s best-known fabulist who often wrote with satirical bent — AO). When the KGB men would take our hand-written notes to be inspected, they would always return this sheet of paper to me and express amazement at the fact that Krylov could write something like this.
To the Bear
The Bear, having grabbed much land
Stayed in control for many years.
And while provisions weren’t bad
No one had reasons to rejoice.
Defiling land and breaking trees
He also kept in thrall his brothers.
The fun he had made neighbors seethe
And his achievements scared others.
He was convinced he’d built his heaven
The rights of others were just tripe.
Once, having glanced around, he reckoned
He should expand and show his might.
There were people near his land plot
Who lived the way they chose to live.
But he made sure they were taught
The bears’ ways, and urgently.
He burst into a neighbor’s house
Tossing about, like bears do.
Since he believed he was a genius
He brushed off other people’s views.
Years passed and he continues teaching
His neighbors how to live in bliss,
Makes them adapt to bears’ thinking
Those who object will taste his scythe.
But one can’t stay a bear forever
While next-door folk are humankind.
You, bear, should get wise and clever
And leave the bears’ ways behind.
Vitold Abankin performing on stage.