The Gulag Archipelago 1918-1956 An Experiment In Literary Investigation, by Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, copyright 1976
For an introduction to this series, click here.
Excerpted from Volume III, Part V – Katorga – Chapter 6. The Committed Escaper
(The author has devoted two entire chapters to Georgi Tenno, who was one of the successful escapees mentioned in an earlier excerpt. His story is so extraordinary that I have decided to excerpt these two entire chapters verbatim. In easily-digestible segments, of course.)
“But the inquiry revealed that there had been no breakout! Yes! The lads said in unison that they’d been dozing in the back when the lorry started moving, then there was shooting and it was too late for them to jump off in case they were shot. And Jazdik? He was inexperienced, couldn’t handle the lorry. But he’d steered for the mine next door, not for the steppe.
“So they got off with a beating.
“Preparations for planned escape take their own course. To make a compass: take a plastic container and mark points on it. Break off a bit of spoke, magnetize it, and mount it on a wooden float. Then pour in water. And that’s your compass… Drinking water can conveniently be poured into an inner tube, which the escaper will carry like a greatcoat roll. All these things (together with food and clothing) are carried gradually to the woodworking plant, from which the escape is to be made, and hidden in a hole near the band saw. A free driver sells them an inner tube. Filled with water, this too now lies in the hole. Sometimes trains arrive by night and the loaders are left at the work site to deal with them. That’s when they must run for it. One of the free employees, in return for a sheet brought out from the camp area (best prices paid!), has already cut the two lower strands of wire near the band saw, and the night for unloading timber is getting closer and closer! But one prisoner, a Kazakh, tracks them to the hole they use as a hiding place and denounces them.
“Arrests, beatings, interrogations. In Tenno’s case there were too many ‘coincidences’ which looked like preparations to escape. They were sent off to the Kengir jail, and Tenno was standing face to the wall, hands behind his back, when the captain in charge of the Culture and Education Section went by, stopped near him, and exclaimed:
“’Who’d have thought it of you! And you a member of the concert party!’
“What most amazed him was that a peddler of prison-camp culture should want to escape. On concert days he was allowed an extra portion of mush – and yet he had tried to run away! Some people are never satisfied!!
“On May 9, 1950, the fifth anniversary of victory in the Fatherland War, naval veteran Georgi Tenno entered a cell in the celebrated Kengir Prison. The cell was almost dark, with only one little window high up, and there was no air, but there were plenty of bugs – the walls were covered in splotches of bug blood. That summer a heat wave was raging, with temperatures between 40 and 50 degrees centigrade, and everyone lay around naked. It was a little cooler under the sleeping platform, but one night two prisoners shot out from there with a yell: poisonous spiders had perched on them.
“It was a select company in the Kengir jail, brought together from various camps. In every cell there were experienced escapers, hand-picked champions. Tenno had found his committed escapers at last!
“Among the prisoners was Captain Ivan Vorobyov, Hero of the Soviet Union. During the war he had been with the partisans in the Pskov oblast. He was a resolute man of indomitable courage. He had already made unsuccessful attempts to escape, and would make others. Unfortunately, he could not take on the jailbird coloring, the half-caste look which is so helpful to a runaway. He had preserved his soldier’s straightforwardness; he had a chief of staff and they sat on the bed platform drawing a map of the locality and openly discussing plans. He could not adjust to the sly, furtive ways of the camps, and was invariably betrayed by stool pigeons.
“A plan fermented in their heads: to overpower the warder supervising the issue of the evening meal if he came alone. Then open all the cells with his keys. Rush to the jailhouse exit and take control of it. Then open the jailhouse door and mob the camp guardroom. Take the guards along as prisoners and break out of the camp area as soon as darkness fell. Later they were taken out to work on a housing site, and a plan for escaping through the sewage system was born.
“But these plans were never implemented. Before the summer was out this whole select company was manacled and transported for some reason to Spassk. There they were put into a hut with a separate security system. On the fourth night the committed escapers removed the bars from a window, got out into the service yard, noiselessly killed a dog, and tried to cross a roof to the huge main camp area. But the iron roof bent under their feet, and the noise in the quiet of night was like thunder. The warders gave the alarm. But when they arrived inside the hut, everyone was peacefully sleeping and the bars were back in place. The warders had simply imagined it all.
“They were destined never, never to remain long in one place! The committed escapers, like Flying Dutchmen, were driven ever onward by their troubled destiny. If they didn’t run away they were transferred. This whole band of men in a hurry was switched, in handcuffs, to Ekibastuz camp jail. There the camp’s own unsuccessful runaways – Bryukhin and Mutyanov – were added to their strength.”