A Personal Story of
Imprisonment in Russia
Alexander WeissbergAlexander Weissberg was a young Viennese physicist and engineer who emigrated to the Soviet Union in 1931 to help, as he thought, to build Socialism. Six years later, he was arrested on the usual imaginary charges during the Great Purges. He spent three years in prison.
After the Nazi-Soviet Pact of 1939, the Soviet Union demonstrated its fealty to its new friends in many devoted ways. One way was to turn imprisoned German and Austrian Communists, including Weissberg, over to the Gestapo. Weissberg was able to escape from the Gestapo after transfer, and survived WWII underground in Poland.
The book (now out of print) describes the period immediately preceding his arrest, and then his three years in Soviet prisons. The early part of the book explains the social background within which the Great Purges can, in a sense, be understood.
One striking element in Weissberg's narrative is a statistical analysis of the scope of the Great Purges. He devised clever ways to keep a tally of all the prisoners who passed through the central Kharkov prison --- his own location for most of his imprisonment --- and related that to the known population of the Kharkov area. He then taught confederates to make similar estimates elsewhere in the GULAG system. In this way, Weissberg calculated that between 5.5% and 6.0% of the whole population of the USSR, or about nine million individuals, had been swept up by the G.P.U. between 1936 and early 1939. This estimate agrees reasonably well with later scholarly studies, and carries the special authority that Weissberg was privileged, if that is the right word, to make his estimates from inside the belly of the beast.
Another section explains how this juggernaut of mass arrest reached such proportions.
The Shah of Persia, delighted with the new game of chess, invited its inventor to express a wish and promised that it would be fulfilled even if it cost him half his kingdom. The inventor seemed to be a modest man: "Put one grain of wheat on the first square of the board," he said, "then two on the second, four on the third, eight on the fourth and so on, and I shall be more than recompensed." At first the Shah was quite indignant at such modesty and he ordered his servants to supply the wheat. Before long it became clear that the palace would not be big enough to hold it. Then he called in his wise men to calculate just how much wheat was required.
And after a while they appeared with the result of their cogitation: the harvests of the whole country for a thousand years would not be sufficient. Stalin must have felt something like the Shah when after three years of his purge he realized what had happened. Then, and only then, did he call a halt. But it was already too late. To release the innocent in masses would have been dangerous. To leave them to rot in the prison camps of the Far North and elsewhere sealed the fate of the Russian Revolution.
The technique was the same in each case. Every new prisoner brought in was asked the same two fatal questions: "Who recruited you?" and "Whom did you recruit?" Within a very short time after his arrest the half a dozen innocents he had been forced to denounce would join him in the cells. And then the mechanism would start up again on a wider scale; each of these new prisoners denounced another half a dozen. And so on, and so on, and so on. In this way the purge mechanism became self-operating, and each wave of arrests was followed by a still bigger one.
When in my report a prisoner uses the term "recruited" then the reader must not suppose that any real recruitment is indicated. If someone says: "Lebedev has 'recruited' Kondratchenko," it merely means that although both Lebedev and Kondratchenko are loyal Soviet citizens, Lebedev has broken under torture and "confessed": "I was a counterrevolutionary and recruited Kondratchenko for my counterrevolutionary organization."
The mass arrests began in the late summer of 1937, but the arch-recruiters had already passed through the cells in 1936, and grass was growing on their graves. At first we had supposed that all our organizations were descended from the leaders of the opposition, the men who were physically exterminated in the big show trials, but later on a careful analysis of the stories of hundreds of my fellow unfortunates revealed that this was not so. Up to the spring of 1937, the G.P.U. arrested not only those who were directly or indirectly connected in some way with the great trials, but also everyone whose name was in its dossiers as in some way suspect or compromised from former days. By the spring of 1938, a very large section of the population was registered in the dossiers of the G.P.U. as "compromised" or "suspect" in some way or other. At that period it must have been easy to reckon by simple multiplication when the whole Russian people would finally be "recruited".
It was at this point that the G.P.U. began to become anxious, but it was not easy to call a halt. It was impossible not to arrest a man who had just been denounced as an agent of Hitler and a terrorist. The examiners knew, of course, that the whole thing was a grotesque invention, but they were unable to admit their knowledge, even to each other. A G.P.U. man who expressed the slightest doubt about the farce would himself have been arrested. In the summer of 1938 there was a widespread feeling among the prisoners that the more people they dragged into it the better it would be for them and the sooner the wretched farce would be played out, so that whereas in the beginning prisoners denounced other with a bad conscience, they now began to denounce all and sundry, and in particular they took a great pleasure in denouncing all those they believed to be orthodox Stalinists. The examiners were often nonplused.In the spring of 1938 the Secretary of the Kharkov Medical Council, himself a doctor, was arrested. As it happened he had an extraordinarily good memory and he knew every doctor in Kharkov by his Christian name as well as his surname. He was put into the brikhalovka with the rest and for a few days he silently observed the witches' sabbath going on around him and then he made his decision. Speaking to a fellow prisoner who was in my cell but who went to the brikhalovka daily at that time for interrogation, he declared: "Well, if that's the way they want it, that's the way they shall have it. I'll give them something to chew that'll take them a damned long time to swallow."
And with these dark words he went off to his first interrogation. He pleaded guilty at once. Then came the two fatal questions which had worried us all so much. But they didn't worry the doctor.
"There will be quite a lot," he said.
"You will have to tell us all their names," said the examiner innocently.
"Of course I will," replied the doctor, "but I shall have to think hard. Give me pencil and paper and I'll write out the list in my cell."
The next day he was called out again and he arrived with the list. He had written out the names of all the several hundred doctors in Kharkov.
The examiner was beside himself.
"You're mad," he shouted angrily, you can't have recruited all the doctors in Kharkov."
"Why not?" replied the doctor calmly. "I was instructed to do so by my organization and I worked at it day and night, and as Secretary of the Medical Council I was in a very favorable position, you know."
The examiner tried to force him to write out a few names which he considered of special importance, but the doctor refused. The examiner then drew up a deposition containing only a few names, but the doctor refused to sign it. He was a difficult case. There wasn't much point in beating him up. He had admitted his guilt at once and he had answered all the questions put to him with alacrity. In the end the examiner called him an agent provocateur and sent him back to the brikhalovka to think it over.
The doctor, who still had a piece of paper and his pencil, then wrote a letter to the head of the Kharkov G.P.U. He pointed out that he had repented of his sins against the Soviet power and made a full confession but now the examiner, probably for counterrevolutionary reasons, was trying to shield the other members of his organization, and he demanded that the chief of the G.P.U. should immediately intervene.
When I first heard this story I felt inclined to doubt it. For one thing, it sounded much too good to be true, and then I hadn't come into contact with the man myself. But a man who was put into our cell a couple of weeks later had been in the same cell with the doctor from the beginning, and he described the preliminaries.
At first the doctor had been very silent. Then one day he had joined in the general talk and told them a story about the days of witch burning in Germany in the Middle Ages. In either Bamberg or Wurzberg --- I can't remember which was mentioned --- the Inquisition had raged with particular severity and the population groaned under the flail. No one was safe any longer and one day a young theologian was arrested on the usual charge of intelligence with the devil. He pleaded guilty at once and named all the members of the Inquisition, including the Grand Inquisitor himself, as his accomplices. The Inquisition was in a quandary. It was unable to put the prisoner to the torture because he had confessed and answered all the questions put to him with alacrity. The cause was then taken to the Archbishop, who was perhaps not sorry to end the whole wretched business. The Inquisition was called off and the inhabitants breathed again.
The recollection of this incident in medieval Germany had obviously persuaded our doctor to adopt the same tactics. Unfortunately, the G.P.U. was more persistent than the Inquisition, and there was no enlightened Archbishop to put a stop to the insanity.Excerpted from The Accused:
A Personal Story of Imprisonment in Russia
by Alexander Weissberg.
Translated by Edward Fitzgerald
©1951, Simon and Schuster