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CHAPTER XXIII
 

TO THE CRIMINAL PRISONS

 

OUR presentiments proved to be all too correct. St. Petersburg pressed more and more insistently for the closing of the political prison in Harbin and the transfer of all those under sentence to regular prisons throughout the Far East. Foreseeing the inevitable developments, our influential friends sought to have us transferred to the fortress at Vladivostok, where a group from the local branch of our Central Committee, with the brother of General Horvat, engineer W. L. Horvat, at its head, was already confined. The correspondence between Harbin and St. Petersburg lasted for a long time, unnerving us and causing us to lose our moral grip.

It was in March of 1907, when Nowakowski and the others who had been condemned to a year's imprisonment had only a fortnight left of their terms and when, of course, they had no wish to travel in prison cars to Vladivostok or any other Siberian town to be marched through its streets to a new and more degrading gaol. One day the spindle was sprung, when we were informed that the reactionary Minister of the Interior, Durnovo, had ordered that all those who had been condemned to fortress prison be placed, until the end of their terms, in criminal prisons. He was taking this measure to make the enemies of the Government feel the whole weight of their punishment by passing through the hell of these institutions.

As this order was irrevocable, we were in despair, for we knew full well, from the stories we had heard, the inexpressible misery in which the prisoners in these gaols existed. However, even this disagreeable turn of events had its comical side.

After Nowakowski had read the proclamation which published to the prison this disheartening news, he swore energetically and persistently and completely lost his usual good humour, walking up and down for whole hours from one corner of the cell to the other, and muttering:

"Fool! Fool!"

"Who is a fool?" I finally asked him.

"I am," he answered and stopped right in front of me, as I looked at him in astonishment "I am," he repeated with emphasis and conviction, "because it was I myself who built the criminal prison over in Pristan and now I am to be locked up in it! Is it not the irony of Fate, a joke of life?" He spat energetically and again took up his tramp across the cell, snorting and muttering. I had a good laugh at his expense. Life could really not have played a sorer practical joke on this builder of the prison.

However, Nowakowski was spared the actual fulfilment of this bit of grim humour, owing to the fact that the preparations for the transfer of the political prisoners consumed so much time that the end of the term of Nowakowski and some of the others came before these were completed, so that on March 23, 1907, this little group was set free to go back into the world—and face the new persecutions by the Tsar's officials and gendarmes which awaited them.

I was left quite alone in my cell. At first I missed the bent figure of the grey-haired, silent Nowakowski. Longing often gnawed at my mind and heart, but soon everything was engulfed in a strange, dull indifference to all that was happening in my moral and physical spheres. It was just as though I had for some time been effaced from life, as though I had been in a lethargy and were at intervals coming back to consciousness, only to fall again into a sleep still more profound and heavy, unmarked by dreams or by any remembrance of a former existence. Such an experience is only normal in the life of a prisoner and explains why men who have been sentenced to long terms do not, for the most part, begin to work of their own will, for they instinctively realize that the end of the period of their exclusion from the life of the State and of society is still so far away that the one single thought is simply to wait for it to come and there is no reason to begin to prepare for it through work. This is the most demoralizing influence of the prison, since a man after this lethargy rarely knows how, when he is set free, to return to normal life. Moreover, he must inevitably go through a period of despondency, strongly set with doubt and with hate, not only the hatred for the authorities who condemned him but also that for society, which looks with silence and indifference upon the moral tortures of the inmates of its prisons.

I really do not know which suffers the more in a Russian prison, the simple man or the cultured one. While the first may develop a degenerating laziness and hate, in the second there may readily appear more dangerous symptoms, which tend to destroy his whole spiritual structure. I have specially in mind that despondency—impossible to formulate in words—as to the real value of life and work in a time when there is so much legal injustice in the depriving of man of liberty and of the natural conditions of normal life, that is, of the possibility of expressing human sentiments, thoughts and actions. After my first fourteen months of imprisonment under what might be called unusually favourable conditions, I observed these changes in myself and, for a long time after I was finally out of the "stone bag," I could not muster the necessary strength to correct these deformities.

From the course of my tale the reader will realize that I know the prison through and through, that I have had the opportunity to look into the depths of the souls of its miserable and very unhappy population and that I have, consequently, the right to give expression to my one outstanding thought regarding it.

First, let us admit at once that modern society is so organized that it cannot exist without eliminating from its life certain personalities, which are too theoretically expansive to conform to its institutions as they stand and are, therefore, dangerous to it; but do not let us, through the law, make of them monsters breathing ruin and hate for ever after. Give them the most normal conditions of life, fill their monotonous days with work, study and talks with men who are wise and full of understanding; try to wake in their hearts healthful remorse, shame and disgust for their former actions; heal them and make them over morally, not only with words and prison regulations, but with a constructively beneficial régime for their enforced life behind the prison bars. Remember this in the name of Love and Justice; remember it for the sake of your own security, keeping before you the terrible example of Russia, where, in this land of prisons, banishment and executioners, whole rivers of innocent and valuable blood have been shed during these past seven years through the opportunities given to the former inhabitants of the "stone bags" to revenge themselves upon the men guilty of their torture—and upon the innocent, who, in silence, allowed the crime of the others to pass unchallenged.

In the early days of April, when I had still six months of imprisonment ahead of me, one morning at about seven o'clock our few possessions were loaded on a big, flat wagon, and we were herded into the crude "Black Marias" of Russia and taken over to the criminal prison in the commercial quarter of Harbin.

This immense building of red brick, with barred windows, stood enclosed by a high wall, at whose comers soldiers in protruding, round turrets swept the sides of the square. Other armed guards were posted at the entrance and were doing sentinel duty all around the base of the wall. When the skeleton iron door closed with a dull noise and a rattle behind us, a crushing presentiment, an indescribable longing fastened itself upon our hearts.

Some guards, armed with revolvers and swords, were stationed about the prison yard, where a group of prisoners were carrying big buckets filled with dishwater. In an exercise cage, which had been built in the centre of the yard, a prisoner was shuffling up and down with a heavy, swaying tread, induced by the irons on his feet, which clanked at every movement.

From a side wing of the building a line of women prisoners under the care of a matron were just coming out. They were carrying soiled linen and were evidently going to the wash-room. One of them spoke to me. She was no longer young, rather tall and had a thin, gloomy face, out of which gleamed threateningly stern, black eyes. As she passed near me, she bent toward me and whispered:

"You want, perhaps, to die? I have a sure poison, made of herbs. À little of it put in your tea will be sufficient."

I was silent and experienced a feeling of great depression.

"When you want it, please remember my name. I am called 'Daria the Black.' … It is a good, strong herb."

The matron called sharply at her for lingering, and she went on.

We spent a long time in the yard, while our belongings, documents and photographs were being registered in the Commandant's office. From the principal building quite a number of prisoners came out to walk in the yard and, little heeding the shouts and cuffings of the keepers, crowded round us with a score of questions.

"Ah-h-h!" drawled one of them, a rather short man with broad shoulders and hands that reached down to his knees. "Citizens—the dear intelligentsia! Ah-ha! You put us in your prisons, because sometimes we pinch you a little. But I see that now you are beginning to destroy yourselves. This is well, Citizens!"

As he said this, he poked me in the side with his fist, while the others, with the same aggravating familiarity, began to push my companions about and to jest them roughly. I looked at the man for a moment. He had a vicious, colourless face, oblique eyes and ears like those of a bat.

"What is your name?" I asked him.

"The one they gave me at my birth," he answered with a laugh and, putting his arm around my neck, added: "Well, comrade, don't prance!"

"Leave me in peace, or it will be the worse for you," I returned calmly but very definitely. "I don't like familiarity or stupid jokes."

"And what difference is it to me that you don't like this?" he replied with a good deal of disdain, at the same time trying to take hold of my neck again.

"Then take that," and, with a strong lunge on the jaw, I sent him over clean. His group immediately retreated, muttering:

"Eh! this is a bad bird."

My over-intimate acquaintance picked himself up rather leisurely and went off without saying a word for a walk in the cage.

"That is Mironoff," explained one of the keepers, who came up to me. "You struck him hard and he will now respect you."

An hour later in my cell, which had only a single small window near the ceiling and was but four paces in length, I began walking up and down and reflecting on the characteristic way the prison had met me—with poison and fight.

"Here one must either give up and flee from life or fight with his own strength, in order to have anything approaching a possible existence," I wrote in my notebook as my first observation on the criminal prison.

Although to me now the memories and impressions from the prisons at Harbin, Vladivostok, Nikolsk, Nikolaievsk and Habarovsk form one immense black and gloomy background of a life crushingly monotonous through its continual torture, there pass across the foreground of this great canvas of memory, like flashes of bright and dazzling lightning, unusual figures, events fraught with strength and impulse, unhappy souls, sometimes beautiful in their tortures and longings and, at others, unbelievably powerful in their actions.

Unknown and unknowable Fate threw me into these "stone bags" filled with human dust; into this strange world full of contradictions, with a life revolving ever within the limits of the four walls surrounding the criminal prisons of Russia; into these packs of pariahs, these victims of the stupid Russian disregard and cruelty.

This life does not take its character from any incidence of locality or from the personality of the authorities; it is the result of the collective soul of the Russian nation. Therefore, I shall describe it as though I had seen it and lived it in a single place, though I repeat again, that there may be no misunderstanding, that my record is made up of the events, impressions and experiences in the several prisons to which I was transferred before the expiration of my term. Everywhere they were tied together with the one ever-present thread of tragedy in these molecules of human dust,—a tragedy stormy and fascinating, though at times bright withal.