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 7. The White Kitten (Georgi Tenno’s Tale)

(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.)

“From that night – from the moment we went indoors for a warm-up, or perhaps when we met the white kitten – our escape began to go wrong. We had lost something: our confidence? our tenacity? our ability to think straight? the instinctive understanding between us? Now that we were nearly in Omsk we started making mistakes, pulling different ways. When runaways behave like that, they do not run much farther.

“Toward morning we abandoned the boat. We slept through the day in a haystack, but uneasily. Darkness fell. We were hungry. It was time to stew some meat, but we had lost our bucket in the retreat. I decided to fry it. We found a tractor seat – that would do for a frying pan; the potatoes we could bake.

“Nearby stood a tall hut, left by some haymakers. In the mental blackout which had come upon me that day, I thought it a good idea to light my fire inside the hut: it would be invisible form all sides. Kolya didn’t want any supper at all. ‘Let’s move on!’ Once again we couldn’t see eye to eye.

“I did light a fire in the hut, but I put too much wood on. The whole hut went up in flames, and I barely managed to crawl out. Then the fire jumped to the stack – the one in which we had spent the day – and it blazed up. Suddenly I felt sorry for that hey – so sweet-scented, and so kind to us. I started scattering it, and rolling on the ground in an attempt to put it out, to prevent the fire from spreading. Kolya sat aloof, sulked, and offered no help.

“What a trail I’d left now! What a conflagration it was; the glow could be seen many kilometers away. What’s more, this was an act of sabotage. For running away they would only give us the same quarter we already had. But for malicious destruction of kolkhoz hay they could ‘put us under’ if they wished.

“The worst of it is that each mistake increases the likelihood of further mistakes; you lose your self-confidence, your feel for the situation.

“The hut had burned down, but the potatoes were baked. The cinders took the place of salt. We ate some of them.

“We walked on in the night. Skirted a big village. Found a shovel. Picked it up in case in might be useful. We moved in closer to the Irtysh. And were brought to a halt by a creek. Should we make another detour? It was a nuisance. We looked around a bit and found a boat without oars. Never mind; the shovel would do for an our. We crossed the creek. Then I strapped the shovel to my back, so that the handle would stick up like the barrel of a gun. In the dark we might pass for hunters.

“Soon afterward someone came toward us and we stepped aside. ‘Petro!’ he said. ‘You’ve got the wrong man; I’m not Petro.’

“We walked all night. Slept in a haystack again. We were awakened by a steamer whistle. We stuck our heads out, and saw a wharf quite near. Lorries were carrying melons onto it. Omsk is near, Omsk is near, Omsk is near. Time to shave and get hold of some money.

“Kolya keeps on nagging me. ‘We shan’t make it now. What was the good of running away in the first place if you’re going to feel sorry for people? Our fate was in the balance, and you had to feel sorry for them. We shan’t make it now.’

“He was right. It seemed so senseless now: we had neither razor nor money; both had been in your hands and we didn’t take them. To think that after all those years longing to escape, after showing so much cunning, after crawling under the wire, expecting a bullet in the back any moment, after six days without water, after two weeks crossing the desert – we had not taken what was ours for the taking! How could I go into Omsk unshaven? How were we to pay for the journey on from Omsk?

“We lay through the day in a haystack. Couldn’t sleep, of course. About five o’clock Zhdanok says, ‘Let’s go right now and take a look around while it’s light.’  ‘Certainly not,’ I say. He says, ‘It’s nearly a month now! You’re overdoing the caution! I’m getting out of this and going by myself.’ I threaten him: ‘Watch you don’t get a knife in you.’ But of course I would never stab him.

“He quieted down and lay still. Then suddenly he rolled out of the stack and walked off. What should I do? Let him go, just like that? I jumped down, too, and went after him. We walked on in broad daylight, following the road along the Irtysh. We sat behind a haystack to talk things over: if we met anyone now we couldn’t let him go in case he reported us before it got dark. Kolya carelessly ran out to see whether the road was clear, and a young fellow immediately spotted him. We had to call him over. ‘Come on over here, pal, and let’s watch our troubles go up in smoke.’  ‘What troubles have you got?’  ‘Me and my brother-in-law are on holiday, taking a trip on the river. I’m from Omsk and he’s a fitter in the ship-repair yards at Pavlodar, and, well, our boat slipped its moorings in the night and got away, all we’ve got left is what was on the bank. Who are you, then?’  ‘I’m a buoy keeper.’  ‘Haven’t seen our boat anywhere, have you? In the reeds, maybe?’  ‘No.’  ‘Where’s your post?’  ‘Over there’ – he pointed to a little house. ‘So let’s go to your place, and we’ll stew some meat. And a have a shave.’”